The Use of Quality Tools to Improve Education – From an HPT Perspective

Note: “I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive a variety of quality resources as honorarium from ASQ in exchange for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.”

The latest post from ASQ’s CEO Paul Borawski starts off with…

“I dream of a time when quality is recognized throughout the world as a vehicle of improvement and innovation. Here’s an example: education.

The quality of education is central to the vitality of every community, anywhere in the world. Our collective future rests in the hands of children. So, when I learned the ASQ Milwaukee, Wis., section invited Dr. JoAnn Sternke, the Superintendent of the Pewaukee School District in Wisconsin, to present at their monthly meeting, I was quick to sign up.”

Paul’s post continues – and can be read here. Paul wraps up his post with this…

“Does your region or community—wherever you are in the world–use quality tools to improve education? How can we encourage educators to join us in raising the global voice of quality?”

The answer to his first question is Yes – when I think of my community as my main professional home (ISPI – the International Society for Performance Improvement) and I think of the evidence-based practices of Human Performance Technology (HPT) as a set of Quality concepts, models, methods, tools and techniques.

ISPI and HPT are where I go for the big picture of Performance Improvement using systems thinking and systemic and systematic approaches –  and ASQ is where I go to go deeper into the tools that have evolved out of the global TQM – Total Quality Management movement (or VR – Variability Reduction)  movement as I came across it in the very late 1970s. They do go hand in hand – along with OD, Motives/Incentives, Measurement/Evaluation and many, many other aspect of Quality and Performance.

I try to not let the language and nuanced model differences between the many communities of thought and practice get in my way of adopting and adapting anything and everything to affect Performance at the levels of the worker, the work, the workplace and the world. I am afraid too many do.

But I digress.

Paul’s last questions resonated with me because I have sat at the feet of many of the initial thought leaders from ISPI (from back in the day when it was NSPI). I knew that the founders (including the Air Force Colonel who was one of the early instigators of the Society: Gabriel D. Ofiesh) were all about education.

One of the early members and thought leaders still today is Dale Brethower – author of Performance-based Instruction (among many other publications) – and professor emeritus from Western Michigan University) – a best friend forever to one of my heros and mentors from NSPI/ISPI, Geary Rummler. Dale responded first to my call to My Crowd for their Wisdom regarding Paul’s question – with an HPT spin on Quality Tools:

Guy, regarding HPT & education—

Education is where HPT started.  The early work in programmed learning was to be the start of a “great educational revolution” in which educators focused on specific objectives, which were measured and corrective or sustaining action was taken.  Properly developed programs worked fine but there was amazingly minimal demand for effective instruction within the educational system or within the textbook publishing industry.

Why the lack of demand? The programs cost more to produce and prices were inelastic. Too few parents were pushing for improvements; schools resisted. 

Why the resistance? It might put teachers out of work; it might move special education students off the special ed roles and, therefore, cost a school revenue and special ed teachers; it might show that students had been failing due to inadequate instruction.  The sources of resistance are not speculations: I personally encountered all of them at one time or another. I knew personally two teachers who were actually “let go” due to successful work with special education students to “mainstream” them. (When the special ed student headcount declined, the schools lost funding for the two teacher’s positions.) 

Improving educational results was not and is not possible by improving instructional materials unless and until other systemic variables are addressed. The value of controlling systemic variables was demonstrated way back in 1961 in my doctoral dissertation, The Classroom as a Self-Modifying System.  The dissertation and work several of us did at the Center for Programmed Learning for Business showed 3 things:

1) programmed instruction could yield value-adding results in environments that valued results,
2) managing systemic variables is necessary to sustain results, and
3) managing systemic variables could often yield improved performance more quickly, of greater magnitude, and with much less cost than did focusing on instruction.

That work was done with hundreds of for-profit companies and a few government agencies including the IRS, Air Force, Army, and Navy (when the leadership of the agencies valued performance results). Much of the work was published in refereed journals and in books published by well-known publishing houses as well as by tiny publishers. 

Hence, the shift in HPT emphasis to systemic variables AND to an environment that actually values results: the private commercial sector.  The shift started in the 1960s but was more visible during the 1970s and 1980s.  As you know, Guy, because you were involved in it, the early work on quality at Motorola was explicitly HPT work, though the terminology “Human Performance Technology” was not yet in vogue.


That in its typical fashion started a chain reaction from others in that personal learning network (PLN) including the following – from some whose names you may not know but perhaps should:

From Joe Harless – author of The Eden Conspiracy: Educating for Accomplished Citizenship (1998) – another NSPI/ISPI mentor, who while retired, is still active in this education arena, and still patiently guides me yet today – with some search guidance on this topic – about work that he is doing in his local community:

Search: Central Educational Center, Newnan, Ga. – and one item that comes up is:

From Margo Murray author of Beyond the Myths and Magic of Mentoring – 2001:

Interesting that the past few days I have seen documentaries on a few teachers and alternative schools that are truly dedicated to educating children.  With longer hours in school, year round schools, and much more parental involvement.

When I read the blog about quality I was reminded of a sign I have above my desk, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle

And, Guy, I was reminded of our conversation about the origins of the quality emphasis, which shaped my belief that it must be embedded into the work (education) not a side program with banners and slogans.


 And then it got more fun…with an exchange between Dale, and Dick aka: Richard E. ClarkAPA Fellow and author of  “Learning From Media: Arguments, Analysis and Evidence (A volume in Perspectives in Instructional Technology and Distance Learning) (Perspectives in Instructional Technology and Distance Learning” – and one of the Keynote Speakers at the 2012 ISPI Conference in Toronto next April.


With your permission, I’ll quote from your succinct history of past evidence-based PI efforts in ISPI’s past at the 2012 conference in Toronto.  I’m guessing that K-12 and Higher Ed might be more accepting in the next decades than they were in the past.  




Yes, it is fine with me if you quote.  Please coordinate with Guy who requested input for an article he is writing. 


PS I’d love to hear your take on why K-12 and Higher Ed might be more accepting.  My pessimistic view is that they are likely to be more accepting only after a decade or two of stronger competition from charter schools or accredited but non-governmental schools. Or perhaps parents and voters will get really active and push the way they did when insisting that schools try to do the Special Education job competently.  But even IEPs were no match for inertia, at least in Ohio where I was involved. 

You are closer to that whole scene than I am now that I’m retired.  Your reasoned optimism would be a great comfort; your views carry weight with me.



I avoided K-12 for my entire career because I’ve shared your impression that decision makers in that arena (and most teachers) rejected nearly all rational and evidence-based approaches in favor of self-serving “do your own thing” fantasies about instruction and learning.  That pattern has not turned around but I’m inclined to think it may in the next few years.  What has happened in the past four or five years is that the constructivist and discovery people have gained the upper hand with many textbook publishers, university teacher education programs, state and local boards of education.  They argue their post-modern claptrap about escaping from robotic teaching practices imposed by authoritarian scientists (as if) that turn kids off about education and recommend challenging kids with engaging problems and leaving them alone (more or less) to discover what they need to learn.  

In STEM subjects (science, tech, engineering and math) it means asking kids and adults to act like scientists and learn to inquire by inquiring with no support.  Take a look at the most recent K-12 textbooks in mathematics and science – they are mostly discovery oriented now.  

The constructivist approach has finally (ticked) off no less than the American Federation of Teachers – the most powerful union group in education – and is gradually spreading to people who pay attention to their political clout.  As an AFT official put it to me in an email last week, “people are out there convincing boards of education not to allow teachers to teach”.  The AFT has recently approached a number of researchers in the English speaking nations and requested monthly columns for their publication “The American Educator” (Circulation about 55K)  that will describe, in teacher relevant terms, instructional strategies that have been found to work in well designed lab and field studies.  I’ve been asked to contribute a column and I know three other people who do great work who have also been invited.  

My take is that these patterns do not turn around quickly or very effectively but the evidence based movement is having a huge impact on medicine and there is a great deal of buzz in Washington about how to leverage what we know about learning to pull schools out of what most everyone agrees is a mess. At least the door has again cracked open so why not give it another try?  All big changes have to cycle many times before they start to take – both with K-12 education and ISPI.

The higher ed arena is changing because of economics more than politics. The competition between the for profit universities is increasing and the recent GAO audit sent many of them to their rooms without dinner- so their profits have been whacked and many are planning comebacks by advertising evidence-based front end analysis in professional studies programs and research-based instructional design for online and classroom courses.    It has already started and will pick up steam in the next couple of years.

How certain am I about all this – not very certain – but confident enough that I’m going to invest time in pushing the evidence-based agenda.


That is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – in terms of the thought and sweat equity ISPI members have been investing in the challenges of improving education. Others are applying HPT to the education system in Macedonia – as I overheard at the recent International Conference 2 weeks ago. And there are dozens if not hundreds of other stories from the past 49 years.

The latest ISPI journal: Performance Improvement for April 2011 (Wiley) is a special issue focused on: Performance Improvement in Education. The PIJ as we call it is available for free to ISPI members – and on a Pay Per View basis too – see more about that here. The next issue of PIJ continues with a look at an application in Mexico.

ISPI is also pilot testing a new Certification for Certified School Improvement Specialist (CSIS). And while very new – and perhaps not quite finished – it is in Pilot – and a bit controversial (aren’t all new things almost always a bit controversial in professional organizations?) – this certification isn’t certifying knowledge via testing – it is intended to certify demonstrated results. As the ISPI web site states: The CSIS recognizes professionals who have demonstrated sustainable improvement in the performance of students, teachers, and school leaders. You can read more about that here.

Of course, my main professional home is not alone in this quest to improve education. ASQ – also a professional home of sorts for me – and many, many other groups have been working this – alone and with others.

Which brings me to this:

United we stand – divided we fall.

Or fail.

This isn’t a US issue. This isn’t a North American issue. This is a Global issue. A GLOBAL issue.

What is at stake GLOBALLY? 

Is it increased productivity in all sectors of the economy in all sectors of the planet’s geographies? Is it reduced hunger? Reduced tensions between nations? Reduced incidents of war? Reduced expenditures for what Ike (remember “I like Ike”) termed the Military-Industrial Complex – enabling the beating of swords back into plowshares – improving productivity for all – reducing hunger for all – reducing tensions, war, and…well, you get it?

Will the circle be unbroken?

Can we break it?

Can we focus on what ISPI’er Roger Kaufman has termed Mega: Societal good? From Wikipedia – and I’ve heard him say this in my presence as well – so don’t go Sinbad on me:

“Mega Planning” starts with the question of “What kind of world do you want for your children and grand-children?” with responses distilled in terms of consequences.

Call me an idealist. That’s cool with me.

For I do believe in the pursuit of perfection, zero defects, even while understanding that that is statistically unachievable.

For if we think we cannot – we surely won’t. And if we think we can – maybe we can get darn close.

I’ve got 4 grandchildren to consider. And other family and friends. How about you?

Let’s all Raise Our Voices – and combine our efforts – for this is just too important to let our differences stand in our collective way in meeting our collective needs.

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