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A Systems Perspective on Accomplishing Improvement

This KnowledgeBase archive includes content and external links that were accurate and relevant as of September 30, 2019.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report A Nation at Riskin 1983. Its general intent was to set a course for improving education in America. Over the ensuing years, while much effort had been applied toward school improvement/reform, the results have varied from state to state and district to district. The No Child Left Behind Act sets the nation out on a new effort to improve student academic achievement setting new accountability requirements for states, districts, and schools.

To accomplish improvement goals, understanding the current situation is essential. The following paints a general picture common to some degree across the country.

  • Numerous improvement initiatives and plans have been undertaken with mixed results.

  • Student academic achievement levels do not show any consistent improvement over time.

  • Student absentee, suspension, and drop out rates are erratic, at best, and in some cases, increasing.

  • Public confidence in local schools is low.

  • Financial resources are shrinking as resource demands are increasing.

  • School administrators and teachers report conflicts between time demands for instruction and daily responsibilities with time for improvement efforts.

Over the years, schools have followed improvement processes oriented toward specific school reform models or those encouraged by state departments of education. Though many worthy efforts have been undertaken, the results have been sporadic. As with any organizational improvement initiative, the challenge lies in sustaining improvement. To do so, there must be a recognition that expecting new results without changing how you do what you do will not happen and a new way of working must become ingrained as the way of doing things within an organization.

A Systems Perspective

Accomplishing improvement requires a systems view of the education process within a school and school district. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, a noted thinker and proponent of quality, spoke of a system comprised of seven parts: aim, customers, suppliers, input, process, output, and quality measurement. In his view, if any one piece was missing, then the result was simply a collection of pieces and not a system. His systems concept is applicable to any organization, profession, or industry. In his book Improving Student Learning, Dr. Lee Jenkins illustrates such a system for education. When focused on the system, school administrators and teachers are able to concentrate on those areas impacting student academic achievement.

Business organizations achieving sustainable improvements in product quality do so with a systematic approach to their improvement efforts. Two such systems are the International Standards Organization (ISO) 9000 standards for quality management and the Criteria for Performance Excellence used by the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program. Educators can use this guidance as well. A quick look at both sets of principles shows much similarity with Dr. Deming's systems approach.

Deming's Systems ApproachISO 9000 Quality Management PrinciplesBaldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence for Education
AimCustomer FocusLeadership
CustomersLeadershipStrategic Planning
SuppliersInvolvement of PeopleStudent, Stakeholder, & Market Focus
InputProcess ApproachMeasurement, Analysis & Knowledge Management
ProcessSystem Approach to ManagementFaculty & Staff Focus
OutputContinual ImprovementProcess Management
Quality MeasurementFactual Approach to Decision MakingOrganizational Performance Results
Mutually Beneficial Supplier Relationships

Embracing a systems approach to improvement does not need to conflict with any school reform model being used within a district or specific school. Rather, it can support those efforts by enabling staff members to optimize time through identifying and discarding those tasks that do not provide value to the system.

Throughout the country, there are districts and schools achieving success with a systems view to improvement efforts. Several useful publications highlighting those efforts are listed below.

Useful Publications

Improving Student Learning Applying Deming's Quality Principles in Classrooms Lee Jenkins

Shape Up Your Local School William Keefer & Allen Salow


The contents of this website were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and are intended for general reference purposes only. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education or the Center, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Some resources on this site require Adobe Acrobat Reader. This website archive includes content and external links that were accurate and relevant as of September 30, 2019.