Education and Business Share Ideas to Create a Fresh
Many schools across the
country are implementing quality principles—schools
where students are empowered to design their own learning
and the teachers facilitate the process. Anytime you see
kindergarteners cite their personal and educational
goals, students use Pareto charts and affinity diagrams
and first-graders conduct brainstorming sessions,
something special is going on. And it’s time
businesses take notice.
Not only is there much to be learned, but
businesses partnering with schools can be the force
fueling change in educational institutions and in turn
the workplace of future generations. Equipping our youth
with the tools needed to succeed in their long-term
future is the end result.
Look closely and what you will find at the
heart of these partnerships is committed leadership at
all levels—from the principal to the custodian.
Look even closer and you’ll find a champion of
change. Tom Houlihan is North Carolina’s champion.
His commitment to education and reform has taken him from
a teacher in 1972 in Raleigh, N.C., to president of the
North Carolina Partnership for Excellence (NCPE). The
mission of his current work with the NCPE is to support
and coach education systems to meet or exceed their
customer requirements, and to align the efforts of all
organizations that support schools.
Houlihan has received numerous awards for his
outstanding work in education, community and
business/education partnerships. In this interview he
shares with us his perspective on the current state of
our classrooms and workplaces, his hope for a solidified
partnership and the positive effects it can have on
Read on and you will find several more
stories about the successes that schools across the
country are experiencing when they implement quality
principles into their institutions.
NFC: You started in education in 1972 as a
teacher, what sparked you initially to begin your quality
Houlihan: I had spent many years in
education and was dissatisfied with the level of progress
being made. In 1990 I attended a Deming seminar and
that’s when I realized what needed to be done to
organizationally improve education. I’ve been on
that journey ever since.
NFC: You’ve been through quite a bit
now since that early adoption; at all levels of school
systems and a state-system reform. What are some of the
benefits of adopting quality systems that you’ve
seen along the way?
Houlihan: The overall benefit is clearly a
higher level of performance at all levels of an education
organization. That is brought about primarily by becoming
more focused and much more aligned. If you look at the
philosophy, the idea is that leadership exists at all
levels of the organization. To see students as leaders,
teachers as leaders and custodians as leaders—in
addition to a principal or superintendent—has been
a really important point of higher performance.
NFC: Are there stories that come to mind as
the most inspiring to you?
Houlihan: One of the most recent is a
school by the name of A.B. Combs, in Raleigh, N.C., which
is an elementary magnet school focusing on leadership.
They have designed the school based on these values. To
see kindergarten students who can tell you their personal
and academic goals for that quarter and how they’re
progressing is truly a revolution in this business. Of
course they’re having amazing success and have a
waiting list for people who want to go to that school. It
really shows that it can make a difference. And we could
go on and on, but it all comes down to this: If the
leaders of an organization stick to it, they will get
results. It’s sticking to the approach in a
continuous improvement mode that is absolutely critical
for future success.
NFC: What obstacles have you seen to the
adoption or sustenance of quality principles? Is
“sticking to it” a main problem?
Houlihan: I heard the quote, “If you
want to change performance, you have to change the
system.” We are in such a quick-fix mentality that
many educators, who don’t know any better, want to
do quality or do Baldrige, check it off and move on. They
don’t really want to commit. They don’t
really want to change the system. And this does not work
if you’re not committed to really changing the
NFC: What are the factors that help support
people in changing the system and committing long enough
to get the necessary effects?
Houlihan: I think that the biggest
component helping to support this approach is the fact
that very little, if anything, else works. We’ve
tried almost everything out there—every canned
program, or whatever it might be—and we have
learned that it doesn’t really make a difference
long term. This is the approach that clearly will work
NFC: Even in the face of that, it still
seems there are districts, administrators or boards that
pose obstacles to the adoption of these principles and to
sticking with them long enough. Would you agree?
Houlihan: I would totally agree.
That’s no more or no less than what you see in
business. There are many businesses who went down this
road looking for immediate results and when they
didn’t get them, they abandoned it. Education and
business organizations are similar. When people really
stick with it, you see significant change. That’s
part of human nature and it also comes from leadership.
Those leaders who have long-term vision and are willing
to commit can help make this happen, but most of the time
we want a quick-fix solution to those issues.
NFC: When educators are looking for a
“quick-fix,” do they focus on test
Houlihan: We are caught up in a local, state and
national emphasis on testing and that’s something
we’re not going to avoid. There is a strong feeling
that we need that accountability. Right now testing is
the only measurement we’ve developed to tell us
whether or not we’re making progress. The irony is
that the more these principles are implemented, the
higher standardized achievement tests tend to be. I think
it’s very interesting. We want to teach the test
because that seems like the thing to do, but when we
really do teach the child—in different ways while
covering a lot of different needs—the test scores
improve anyway. But getting people to believe is half the
NFC: I know the impetus to some of the
changes several years ago came from the business
community. How much of a difference does the support of
the business community make?
Houlihan: We could not have made anywhere
near the amount of progress we made in North Carolina
without the business community because they bring a sense
of legitimacy to new approaches. In other words, when you
talk about the business community being in partnership
with education, it brings a degree of credibility. The
community says, “If the business community supports
it, then hey, this is OK—let’s get on
NFC: It seems like a few years ago there
was a little more resistance. I don’t know if it
had to do with the approach business was
taking—that it was perhaps too arrogant—or
education wasn’t ready. What’s made the
difference between education and business being willing
to partner and get away from the name and blame?
Houlihan: Actually, a lot of that still
goes on. In some states it’s clear that the
business community is not on board; they are in the blame
game. Most times, that tends to be more of a political
issue than an economic one. Personally, I don’t
understand that, but that’s the way it is. In those
states where there is true partnership development, which
is one of the core values of this whole thing, you see
remarkable progress. To me, it is so obvious what needs
to happen. The problem is, the obvious isn’t always
what we do.
NFC: What would be your advice to get
business and education together into true partnership
free from blame?
Houlihan: There needs to be a champion in
the education community and a champion in the business
community who will take the lead and organize the
partnership development around this issue. You can have a
lot of people who are supportive, but unless there is a
real champion who has a firm belief in this approach,
it’s going to be like everything else. When you get
business leaders who believe in this methodology,
they’re so fervent about it that there’s no
question—it’s going to work. We need the same
thing in education. That is the absolute first step. If
you can’t find champions, it will be difficult to
sustain over time.
NFC: How would you compare quality in
education to quality in business? In the early days it
used to be, “Well, this is a business of customers,
suppliers and products. Education doesn’t work like
that.” Once the principles are understood, are
Houlihan: I think the similarities are absolutely
striking. The major difference I see is two fold:
Education doesn’t produce a material product and
education is a government entity. Mandatory open-meetings
and convoluted decision making processes required of
boards of education are very different than business.
Both education and business deal with rules, roles and
relationships. How those three R’s go together to
form a viable organization is really driven by how these
quality principles are put in place. It’s about
people. It’s about how they work, live, plan and
perform together and how they get along with one another
that determines their level of productivity.
NFC: What do you think business can learn
Houlihan: I think business can learn that there
are lots of things educators know and do, but training,
constant professional development and skill development
needs are the same for us as they are for them. We just
don’t spend the money on it the way they do in
business. In most education organizations, we have the
most highly educated workforce of basically every
business or industry around, but we have the most poorly
trained. I hear so many business people tell us they just
cannot believe how little we spend on professional
development and how there is no way they could ever get
their employees to adapt to change if they had the kind
of support that we do in education. I don’t think
I’ve ever had a businessperson involved who has not
walked away from that involvement with a better
understanding and more support for education. They
can’t believe how we do what we do with our limited
NFC: How has the Baldrige Award impacted
the quality movement and quality in education?
Houlihan: I think the Baldrige Award is a
nice aspect of all of this, but it is not the primary, or
even necessarily the secondary, motivator for most
places. The award is a nice byproduct of what you do and
if there are specific examples where the school
system’s leadership went into this because they
wanted to win an award, they flamed out very quickly by
and large. It’s great for rewards and recognition,
but I would not say it is, and I do not think it should
be, a primary motivator for getting into this.
NFC: What about the idea of the Criteria as
a system of self-assessment?
Houlihan: I think the performance Criteria are
superb in that regard. It is a great way of really
looking at and analyzing systems. The Baldrige Criteria
are very appropriate and very important—but not for
the award in and of itself.
NFC: What do you see ahead for the quality
Houlihan: I think we have not yet seen the
pinnacle of the testing movement hit the country. I think
it’s going to continue to grow and it’s going
to be a major factor in school reform in this country.
The federal legislation is going to require testing in
grades 3-8 in every state in the country. There are
likely going to be ups and downs with this approach in
the foreseeable future. We’re in an economically
difficult time. The business community is cutting back.
There’s not quite the availability of personnel and
resources to help. We have to stay the course on this if
long-term improvement is what we’re after. The
value of the approach is so great that it will stand on
its own merits. Long-term I believe this approach is
going to continue to grow and grow. The more people learn
about this, the more they realize what you have to do to
improve schools and improve education.
NFC: So many people are focused on
short-term results. When we’re in an economic
downturn, are people going to keep looking for the
fastest silver bullet they can get?
Houlihan: Definitely—the fastest and
the cheapest. I think that’s something we may
simply have to go through as a nation as we work to
improve our systems long-term. It’s partly
political, partly educational and partly a response to a
lack of accountability in the past. The bottom line is we
almost have to go through this, then figure out where we
want to go in the future.
NFC: Would you say this is the challenge
ahead of us? The short-term vs. long-term?
Houlihan: Yes. It’s the same
challenge that business faces everyday. The short-term
profit line quarterly report vs. where the company is
going long-term. We’ve seen what’s happened
to some businesses where the total focus was on
short-term—a lot of them are not in existence any
more. We can learn a lot about what works and what
doesn’t work through business and industry.
NFC: So, what’s your greatest
Houlihan: My greatest hope is that we as a
country begin to understand education is about more than
just a test score and more than just an economic benefit.
Schools need to help push democracy, they must have a
much more holistic approach. That’s my goal. If you
have that kind of vision, then you realize the quality
approach really is the way to help us improve our systems
and reach those kinds of issues.
NFC: Do you see momentum gaining around
Houlihan: There are a growing number of people
who understand that our schools have to be more than just
places where test scores rule the roost. I don’t
know if people have figured out exactly what that means
but there is a growing awareness that it’s got to
be more than just that. I contend that we can raise test
scores 100 percent and still have employers who are not
satisfied with the type of people graduating from high
school. If you look at what employers want as an
teamwork—those are not easily tested and
we’re not spending a whole lot of time on them.
That’s going to become critically important down
NFC: Do you see the business community being the
driver behind that kind of changing view?
Houlihan: I hope so. I hope the business
community will at least weigh-in on all that. They talk
about these kinds of things, but I’m not sure that
even they know exactly what that means sometimes.
It’s going to have to be a partnership approach if
we’re going to ever, ever meet those kinds of
customer needs and wants.
August 2001 News for a