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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

Response / Why Deming and OBE Don't Mix

Outcome-based education is not compatible with Deming's ideas about the management of quality.

The central idea in W. Edwards Deming's approach to the management of quality is the need to improve process, and the central defect of outcome-based education is that it doesn't address process. Therefore I believe that Deming would reject outcome-based education (OBE) for the same reason that he rejected management by objectives: “It's like running a business by looking in the rearview mirror” (Aguayo 1990).
In management by objectives, management defines targets and assumes that the institution will find a way of meeting them. Outcome-based education (OBE) works the same way. Some agency— usually legislators or bureaucrats, but occasionally a group of teachers and parents—defines the outcomes, and the school has to meet them. This practice not only creates a climate of fear— precisely what Deming opposed—but it means that curriculum is defined by assessment and that teachers must struggle to convert vague generalizations into classroom objectives. It also implies a measure of uniformity that ignores the differences among students.
OBE advocates misunderstand education. Education is not a product defined by specific output measures; it's a process, the development of the mind. Deming's philosophy shifts the focus from the output—the products of a business—to the processes that generate the product. The quality of the product is built in at every stage, rather than inspected at the end. Applying this idea to education, we shift the focus from a consideration of student outcomes to the way the learning process is conceived, animated, and perceived.
Does this mean that we can't evaluate whether education achieves its purposes? In the sense that a teacher's encouraging remark or a school's culture may not bear fruit until years after the student has left, yes. But because schooling is expensive, administrators must prove it's working. Hence the use of tests and assessments—crude and misleading devices that measure performance even though character and understanding matter more. If we accept assessment as a necessary evil, we could say that education has to be outcome-aware. But to declare that education must be outcome-based allows bureaucratic evaluation to drive out professional judgment.

What about OBE and TQM?

OBE is often linked to total quality management (TQM), a method supposedly expressing Deming's philosophy. A recent national conference declared TQM to be “the key to ... attaining Goals 2000,” an outcome-based education program (National Quality and Education Conference 1993). Yet Deming repudiated the term total quality management as generally misrepresenting his ideas (Holt 1993), and described Goals 2000 as “a horrible example of numerical goals, tests, rewards, but not method” (Deming 1993b).
In striving for quality, Deming emphasized method—the practice of an activity, illuminated by theory, that will generate quality. The method chosen depends upon the context, which is where many TQM advocates go wrong. They suppose that because Deming's method for improving the process of making an automobile axle requires detailed measurement and statistics, the same kinds of data are needed to improve the learning process of a student.
Similarly, because Deming argued that the quality of a product is not just a matter of building it well but of anticipating the needs of customers, TQM advocates search for the “customer” in education. Deming knew better, declaring: “We don't have customers in education. Don't forget your horse sense” (Deming 1993a).
Horse sense tells us that to use Deming's principles, we must adapt them to new contexts. We must study a process, seek relevant data, and recognize that the people directly concerned with the process can contribute as much or more to our understanding as those who manage it. To know how to use the data, we must, in the context of a particular problem, bring theory and practice together. As Deming said, “Experience teaches nothing unless studied with the aid of theory” (Neave 1990).
In a recent Educational Leadership article, Alfie Kohn concluded that Deming's “marketplace model” is inappropriate for schools (Kohn 1993). I would argue that Deming's ideas transcend business and that Deming has much to contribute to education. Deming, along with John Dewey and Joseph Schwab (1970), recognized that the methods of science are inappropriate when addressing problems related to people. Deming rejected the bogus scientism of student assessment, staff appraisal, and projected targets, emphasizing instead those elements that foster collegiality and shared understanding—sense of purpose, investment in training, leaders who help rather than judge, elimination of the fear generated by hierarchies, and teamwork at all levels.
Deming's approach runs counter to some current nostrums, such as systemic reform and OBE, for it focuses not on top-down specifications and final products, but on the unique institution and the way its people identify and solve the practical problems that characterize process. In education, we can no longer settle for deterministic, objectives-based thinking; the improvement of practice requires us to confront variation and diversity, using all sources of theory to address the problems of practice.
Deming's concept of the management of quality is consistent with Schwab's concept of curriculum as a practical, deliberative activity for all—not just for experts. Management by outcomes, objectives, and targets appeals to bureaucrats, but can never generate continuous improvement. It comes as no surprise to learn that Deming (Neave 1990) described the former Soviet Union as “Number One for goals and MBO”: enforcing outcome goals led only to inefficiency, management complacency, and low morale. It would be a sad irony if America were to become Number One for OBE, and lose the opportunity to implement real reforms.

Aguayo, R. (1990). Dr. Deming. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Deming, W. E. (March 1993a). Comments made at General Motors Powertrain Seminar, Detroit, Mich.

Deming, W. E. (1993b). The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Holt, M. (Fall 1993). “Dr. Deming and the Improvement of Schooling: No Instant Pudding.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 9, 1: 6–23.

Kohn, A. (September 1993). “Turning Learning Into a Business: Concerns About Total Quality.” Educational Leadership 51, 1: 58–61.

National Quality and Education Conference. (November 1993). From conference brochure, Denver, Colo.

Neave, H. R. (1990). The Deming Dimension. Knoxville, Tenn.: SPC Press.

Schwab, J. J. (1970). The Practical: A Language for Curriculum. Washington, D. C.: National Education Association.

Maurice Holt has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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