The 5 Deadly Diseases of Education


I’m obliged to Jim Benson (@ourfounder) for tweeting the clip below which features the management genius of Dr W.E. Deming. I am also grateful to Andy Raymer, who is the Head Teacher at one of my favourite schools (Matthew Moss High School, in Rochdale, UK), for his application of Deming’s principles to education, and specifically schooling. It was Andy who insisted that I look to Deming’s philosophy and see its applicability to systems of schooling.

Ignore the fact that the video was recorded in 1984 – it’s as relevant now, in the world of business management, as it was then. Ignore the fact that it’s aimed at business too. All you have to do is translate its message into a schooling context, and you have an encapsulation of the reasons why we seem unable to transform schooling.

The clip lasts 15 minutes, and Deming has an idiosyncratic style, but I’d urge you to watch at least the first 12 minutes or so, because it’s an devastating critique of why we can’t fix some long-standing management problems – in business and in education.

His 5 deadly diseases are:

1. Lack of constancy of purpose – in education, we are plagued, at a macro level, by not having a clear purpose for schooling.His lack of long-term definition (‘what’s the point of school?’) and short-term thinking (how successive government ministers need immediate results) could not be more applicable to schooling.

2. Emphasis on short-term profits – I love his ‘shipping stuff out, no matter what’, and ‘creative accounting’. Isn’t this what we do with our obsession with standardised test metrics? For ‘worship of the quarterly dividend’, read ‘worship of the standardised test results’.Teaching to the test is one, relatively mild, form of creative accounting, though we have seen more blatant cooking of the books in some American school districts recently, due to the severe pressure of ‘school turnaround’. As Deming says, this is devastating to long-term planning, to the long-term improvement of quality of experience. But, so long as education stays within politics, and so long as the term of government is around 4-5 years, the push for short-term profits is all we’re going to get.

3. Annual rating of performance – ‘Pay for merit; sounds great, unfortunately it can’t be done’. When so many countries are introducing pay by results for teachers, you wish they’d look at this section especially. ‘The merit system encourages short-term performance. It annihilates planning, it annihilates teamwork. You don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by getting ahead’ His identification of fear and bitterness as the inevitable consequences of performance related pay and annual appraisal, is reflected in the increased demoralisation of teachers in countries which are introducing payment by results.

4. Mobility of management – We’ve seen that the average lifespan of a teacher in the UK and US is about 5 years. In the UK we struggle to fill senior leadership posts and Head Teachers like Andy Raymer (who has been at Matthew Moss High School for more than 20 years) are becoming a rarity. I wonder what Deming would make of the UK phenomenon of the ‘super head’, who is lauded by government, and brought in to provide a quick fix to ‘broken’ schools, before moving on to their next conquest?

5. Use of visible figures only – The is perhaps the biggest indictment . Replace the ‘multiplying effect of a happy/unhappy customer’ with a happy/unhappy student, and we’re at the heart of the biggest distortion in our current school system. We judge a school only by a narrow, and wholly inappropriate set of metrics. Whenever I talk to a group of students, I always ask who many of them would attend school if it weren’t compulsory. The average positive response is about 30%. What business could survive if 2/3rds of the customers were only there because they had to be? But schools don’t measure things like engagement, or satisfaction with schooling, partly because they don’t want to know the results, partly because they don’t know how to, and partly because there’s no reward for a good performance.

Bear in mind that W. E. Deming’s influence upon Japanese businesses has enabled companies like Toyota to survive the car recall crisis of 2009, to become the No 1 car maker in the world by 2011. Long-term quality ahead of short-term profits.

After watching the video, I tried to think of  schools, or school systems, which were as far from, and as close to, the Deming philosophy. The US and UK systems seem to be riddled with the 5 deadly diseases. The ones least infected? Why, Finland of course.

Funny, that.

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4 Responses to The 5 Deadly Diseases of Education

  1. jamiebillingham says:

    Thanks for posting this. I love the last few seconds where Mr. Deming says “You couldn’t go wrong, no matter what”. How true is that! How often do we view things as successful only because we are looking at it in comparison to something that has failed completely. It’s not hard to look tall next to a two year old.I’ve worked in education, health and the justice system and see these “diseases” replicated across multiple systems as if it’s the only way to go. I’ve also seen the result being rationalized by blaming a whole host of uncontrollable factors, most of which may exist but aren’t really the as influential as they are made out to be. Or if they are that influential the way they are managed makes them worse.I appreciated the post even though it’s reminded me of the realities that makes me grumpy 🙂

  2. Yossarian says:

    Many thanks for this provocation from Deming and for this post, David. Much is illuminated. Absolutely right we don’t have a clear purpose. Well, actually we do, but it is very often, in UK schools at least, the defensive and self-serving aim of achieving an “Outstanding” rating from government inspectors. And this purpose is repeated again and again in advertisements for Headteachers: “someone who will take the school to Outstanding. So not a purpose centred on learners’ long-term personal growth, happiness, and contributions to society then? No, centred rather on management teams receiving a gold star from the ultimate performance review of the Ofsted inspection. I thought that schools were supposed to be about learners! And on the back of this inversion comes inefficient short-term thinking and diminished professional judgement and values. And the wastefulness is awful. Lean Management, one of the many children of Deming’s thinking, is built on the imperative of defining the value you are working towards (the growth of composed and effective life-long learners, for schools then) and then getting rid of anything within the processes of school which does not flow towards this value, which is by definition, waste. And what waste we have…. A school not far from us in the UK which has a Headteacher lauded for his zero tolerance approach (Do we really want to train young people to populate a society devoid of tolerance then?) gives learners a detention if they do not have their top button done up on their shirt. (Like the buttoning or otherwise of anything was ever linked to learning! How undergraduates/PhD students/Steve Jobs ever learned without a top button we’ll never know…..!) Anyway, the learners in this school are keen to get their political elbows out as much as possible so evolved the practice of cutting their top buttons off so that they could say that the buttons had accidentally fallen off, thus remaining comfortable and detention-free. However, form tutors got heat about this and, fearful of their annual performance management review, set about bringing sewing kits and buttons to tutor time with their forms and spending considerable amounts of time overseeing sweatshops of learners sewing buttons back on their shirts. What a waste of time and effort!! Doing this rather than having quality conversations about progress and learning! Barking. And yet there is an awful vogue right now in the UK for this crass, authoritarian non-leadership, like a game of dare, of looking tough in front of your mates, spiralling out of control. Not big, not clever and not leadership or management in any meaningful form.Love the “shipping stuff out” phrase also and its relevance for schools. If we can ship learners out to colleges stickered up with the requisite number of GCSEs, then job done. Whether, in teaching to the test, we have let them leave school ill-equipped to be independent learners,is not our concern. The colleges have signed for them on delivery and there is no sale or return if they drop out of their courses: which regularly happens to unacceptable levels. More waste. But not part of our institutional performance management…And my favourite quote from the video: “Working on productivity, no, working on measuring…” The thermometer doesn’t actually do anything and we spend more time repeatedly micro-levelling to create an illusion of 3 levels of progress than we do on reflecting at any depth about how we might maximise the personal development of the individuals in our groups in any enduring or meaningful way.Deming proved himself time and time again in the hard world of business. And what is good enough for Toyota is good enough for us in schools.Great post David. Appreciated.

  3. David Price says:

    Jamie & Mark (aka Yossarian):Brilliant comments – thanks so much. Couldn’t have put it better myself. The macho management/discipline culture seen in many so called ‘improving schools’ in the UK, is a shocking admission that trying to gain student’s engagement and independence in learning has failed. And yet these leaders are lauded.The question is, how do schools steer a course with moral purpose, which avoids falling foul of the ‘authorities’? The Lean Management approach resonates with Larry Rosenstock’s view that it’s what schools take away that makes the difference, not what they add. Great insight, that.Thanks.

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