Customers, not regulations, define quality

W. Edwards Deming, the legendary management guru, taught that quality in education is not goodness but is customer satisfaction within an optimized system. I’ve been thinking about Deming’s work as I’ve been preparing for a panel discussion at the PIE Network’s annual policy summit next week in Seattle on how to improve the quality of charter schools.

If quality derives from customer satisfaction and every student is different, then a school’s quality will differ from student to student. That is, a school may meet the needs of one student but not another. Charter school quality, therefore, is a set of fluid relationships rather than a fixed characteristic, and improving these relationships is key to enhancing charter school quality.

Government regulations provide charter school families with assurances about health, safety, and operational concerns, including teacher credentials, school test scores, and financial stability, but government regulations are not sufficient to ensure quality charter schools. No set of regulations, no matter how cleverly crafted, can match each child with the charter school that best meets her needs. This matching involves subjective judgments that can only be made by families and school personnel as they interact with one another. And once a family and school decide they are a good match, maintaining a quality relationship requires continuous effort from both sides.

Policy makers wanting to support quality charter schools need to focus on how best to help parents and schools create and maintain good relationships. Effective policies will include systems that help parents make good school choices and ensure these choices remain appropriate as the school year unfolds.

Laws holding charter schools accountable are necessary and important, but these laws often reflect a misunderstanding of how quality is achieved and maintained. Customers define quality, not laws, and excellence cannot be mandated.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.