Schools adopt corporate standards

Talk of `stakeholders' is new vocabulary under Baldrige plan

June 21, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

In an odd marriage of the corporate world and the classroom, a handful of Maryland school districts are turning to an unexpected -- and pricey -- source for advice: management consultants. And suddenly, principals and teachers are sounding a lot like Microsoft executives.

Last week in Westminster, a town not known for pinstripe suits and corporate stress, 170 administrators and classroom instructors from Carroll County schools sat cloistered for three days in a banquet hall, doing hefty soul-searching and self-evaluation.

Munching each day on baked chicken and other meals that cost the district $9,000, participants learned about "The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence" -- a standard for performance used by many companies -- and how it could make them better stewards for students and parents.

(Correction: Students and parents are now to be referred to as "stakeholders." An administrator is to "monitor customer and stakeholder satisfaction and dissatisfaction.")

Talk of strategic planning, process management and results orientation have seeped into school districts including Howard and Harford counties, which are using Baldrige or similar programs to improve school management. Proponents say it helps deflect criticism that they are inefficient and spend on trendy new educational programs without overarching goals.

"Teachers can even use the system in the classroom to evaluate their customer satisfaction," said Michael P. Perich, Carroll's supervisor of continuous improvement. "Any organization should do a lot of self-assessment. It's the only way you get better."

Amid the corporate jargon, Perich said, school officials are hoping Baldrige brings districtwide results in coming years. The district spent more than $15,000 to feed participants, pay teachers for overtime and fly in a consultant from Florida. Every school and every department -- from pupil services to food services to maintenance -- is expected to evaluate themselves and consider whether they are living up to Baldrige.

Baldrige is supposed to become the gospel even for school-bus drivers, who will be scrutinized to see whether they are doing their jobs in a way that is in line with everyone else.

What is this plan, this Baldrige that is the talk of the school system?

Named for former Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, the set of criteria -- to use a bit more corporate-speak -- is a type of "integrated management system." In layman's terms, that means making sure all departments are working for the same mission, and not floating astray while absorbing precious cash.

"It helps any organization, big or small, figure out how to manage the space between the parts," said Marilyn Caldwell, the consultant who was paid $3,500 to lead Carroll's orientation. "You can have great teachers. You can have great plans. You can have great books or the most innovative curriculum in the world. Baldrige takes all the necessaries and figures out what the relationships are. It's changing the way a district thinks."

That takes a while. Howard County's schools held a retreat introducing Baldrige in 1996 and finally, this fall, plan to implement what was learned in a few schools.

"We've started very slowly," said Howard school board member Sandra French. "It's a learning process."

The Baldrige Criteria were created in 1987, when the federal government started a business excellence award honoring the former secretary.

Many corporations, hungry to join a fad of self-improvement in the 1980s, began using the criteria even if not competing for any recognition. A growing number of schools have begun to follow suit in the past few years.

Caldwell, who works for the Florida firm Jim Shipley & Associates and has taught Baldrige to about 25 school systems nationwide, said the example set by schools in Pinellas County, Fla., sent a strong message that using the criteria works. There, she said, student achievement across all subjects rose by 30 percentile points. Caldwell credits Baldrige.

In Carroll, Perich, the improvement supervisor, was hard-pressed to explain many concrete changes that will be seen after Baldrige takes hold. He did mention one area -- progress monitoring -- on which principals and curriculum heads will be asked to focus. If, for example, students are learning to write to persuade, Perich said, administrators could collect and scrutinize writing samples each month to check their progress.

The Maryland State Teachers Association endorses Baldrige. The organization is using it as a basis to develop a program called "Improving Maryland Schools."

Pat Foerster, the association's vice president, said teachers will be encouraged to think of society, the business community and parents as the ultimate "consumers" of their work.

Some teachers, Foerster said, have been initially reluctant to buy into that. She recounted one complaint this way: "I don't care about [the consumers] -- I care about my kids."

Harford County's public schools began a large quality improvement initiative in 1996 which, while not based on Baldrige, was perhaps even more corporate-oriented.

A quality improvement specialist was brought in from Xerox Corp. to train all 5,000 district administrators, staff and teachers.

Donald Morrison, Harford schools' public affairs director, participated and said the program helped Harford's employees -- including himself -- understand their responsibilities.

"It helped us to become more customer service-oriented," Morrison said. "My customer is whoever calls asking for information. And I can exceed your expectations by talking your ear off."

Pub Date: 6/21/99

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