ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - February 2001


Issue Highlight — Back To The End Of The Line
- Peter Block explores why the customer has become less important and what this means for those who care about employee development and organizational change.

 In This Issue...
Quality At Lightning Speed
My Hero!
Two Heads Are Better Than One
Leader Of The Pack

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

My Hero!
How Business and Government United to Save North Carolina's Public Schools

Once upon a time there was a damsel in distress,
stranded in an ivory tower in North Carolina. The damsel
was public education, and no matter what her state provided, from generous funding
to scathing criticism, the damsel’s cries remained the same: low test scores, sinking graduation rates and a poorly trained workforce.

  Then, out of the thicket and thundering across the plains came a shining hero on a white horse, armed with the one thing that could silence this damsel: a coalition of business leaders and public education advocates armed with Baldrige criteria...

  OK, cut! Stop the cameras. Even Hollywood’s most star-struck admirers aren’t going
to believe this tale, right? More likely heroes have come out of a Monty Python skit.
But before you send the writers back to the drawing board, you’d better keep one thing
in mind: Truth is often stranger than fiction.

  The truth is, business leaders and educators did get together to radically turn around public education in North Carolina. Back in 1993, newly appointed Governor Jim Hunt
met with North Carolina’s disgruntled business leadership. This time they weren’t interested in tax cuts or more liberal environmental policies. To the contrary, the business leaders expressed a willingness to support a major long-term initiative in education.

  Thus, North Carolina’s Quality Schools research and development project began. A major cornerstone of the effort was a high-performance plan relying heavily on the Baldrige framework of continuous improvement. Baldrige criteria, promoted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has been a significant tool used by thousands of organizations to assess and improve performance on the critical factors
that drive their business success.

  Dr. Tom Houlihan, senior education advisor for Governor Hunt, served as right-hand
man on North Carolina’s Quality Schools Project. “Prior to this effort, North Carolina’s schools were at best stagnant,” Houlihan says. “During the decades of the 1970s and 80s the school system’s level of performance vs. the nation’s was abysmal—
consistently ranking in the bottom 10 of all states in the nation. Lots of work and
money had been spent, but no results over the long term were achieved.”

  Houlihan should know. He’s worked his way from teacher in 1972 to the top job
for Governor Hunt in 1993, with stops as a guidance counselor, principal and superintendent along the way. Houlihan now serves as president and CEO of the
North Carolina Partnership for Excellence (NCPE) in Smithfield, N.C., an
organization founded to continue the work originally established by the Quality
Schools Project. “We began this effort as the largest R&D effort in public education
ever tackled,” says Houlihan. “Working with seven pilot partnerships involving a
local school system, business partner and higher education partner. Today we
have 50+ school system partners representing 70 percent of the state’s student population—all involved on a voluntary basis.”

Once Upon a Time

  A “Total Quality in Education Partnership” was formed between the business
committee and Hunt’s education advisors in 1993 after Hunt’s initial meeting with
the disgruntled business leadership in his state. The partnership sponsored the
quality schools roll out as a four-year research and development project in seven
schools. Using the Baldrige framework, the partnership collected and analyzed data based on annual reviews from key policy makers, the degree of satisfaction from customer (in this case, student) surveys, and written and oral responses from policy makers. The data established best practices, which were in turn implemented to
achieve continuous improvement in basic skills (like reading, writing and math) and
SAT scores.

  In the six years since the founding of the Quality Schools Project in 1993, SAT
scores rose close to 20 percent in some districts: 17.5 percent in the Granville
school system and 17.4 percent in New Hanover. During the same period, reading proficiency increased in Johnston County from 65 to 82 percent; math proficiency increased in Lincoln County from 60 to 88 percent; and writing proficiency increased in Bladen County from 36 to 62 percent. These statistics represent general trends throughout all the school systems involved in the Quality Schools Project.

  By 1997, scores had risen so dramatically that the project was given permanent
status as Houlihan’s nonprofit, public-private partnership, the NCPE. Improvements
have continued, causing the pilot project, the NCPE and the state of North Carolina
to rack up awards and national attention. “In 2000, North Carolina was recognized
by the National Alliance of Business as the “Education State of the Year” for
massive improvements in literally every achievement area during the 1990s,” says Houlihan. “Our state has improved performance more than any other in the nation,
from basic skills to SAT’s.”

In a Land Very, Very Far Away

  You may be thinking, “That’s pretty impressive, Sir Knight, but in my state, we’ve
got real problems.” Houlihan notes a fundamental hurdle in many states he visits
when spreading the word about business-education partnerships. “I find it fascinating
to travel around the country and observe the continuum of attitudes and relationships among [business and education]. In some states, the relationship is non-existent;
there’s been no effort to bring the two together. In far too many states the relationship
is confrontational; the level of mistrust is striking.”

  Contrary to what many naysayers in the business community might think, Houlihan says the teachers have been the strongest proponents of using Baldrige criteria to
collect data and promote best practices. Houlihan recalls one teacher who approached him about the project and its affect in the classroom. The teacher told him that he was ready to hang it up after 22 years in education, but that the system of improvement inspired him to stay. “I finally feel like a professional,” he said. “And my students are making enormous strides. Where has this been for the last 22 years?”

  The Baldrige criteria have been around for a long time. The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award is handed out annually to recognize U.S. companies for business excellence and quality achievement by the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the U.S. Department of Commerce. That’s right—the government. The same guys who oversee our public education system. It is a case, as it often is, of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

At the Round Table at Last

  The Quality Schools Project took core values from the Baldrige criteria and
applied them to public education, including the following: a focus on results, a fast response system, data-based management, emphasis on continuous improvement
and customer-driven quality. Education and business leaders also came up with a mission statement: “To support and coach education systems to meet or exceed
their customer requirements and to align the efforts of all organizations that support schools.”

  Based on that ambitious mission, today NCPE offers several services to the
50-some schools voluntarily participating in the program. These include seminars
on quality principles and strategic planning; publications that promote best practices; networking sessions and conferences for teachers, administrators and business
leaders; fundraising to support the program; technology training on how teachers can better utilize computers in the classroom; a content-rich Web site with lesson plans;
and classroom applications that emphasize student responsibility in learning.

  A big part of Houlihan’s work is fundraising and he isn’t afraid to admit this takes a
lot of time. The development and dispersal of services through NCPE isn’t cheap;
without corporate sponsorship, it wouldn’t be feasible. Private funding totaling over
$4 million in cash and in kind services from the private sector has made the
leaps-and-bounds improvements in North Carolina’s public schools possible.
Houlihan has assembled an impressive list of donors, including Bank of America, BellSouth, DuPont, IBM, Lowe’s, Sprint, Glaxo and many others.

  The partnership between North Carolina’s public schools and private businesses
is unique, the only one of its kind in the United States. But the word is catching on,
with teacher unions across the country leading the charge for the NCPE approach. “I
am a firm believer that public schools will not achieve acceptable levels unless
business is at our side coaching, guiding, supporting and demanding every step of the way,” says Houlihan. “We must stop fixing blame on an education system that needs transformation. Instead let’s work to improve the system...”

  The Baldrige criteria can be used to promote the best practices on a vast, statewide level to improve one of the most pressing issues in modern America today: the state of public education. In that sense, North Carolina rides in as a knight in shining armor, armed with the best practices as an example to us all.


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