This topic has occupied my mind for some time, more so now that I’m coaching software teams and their managers and SLT. I’ve been shifting my thinking, for the past five years, toward a systems thinking perspective, and this naturally led me to read the works of W.E. Deming. I’ve become especially attuned as I’ve observed my own son languishing in the local public school.
While Deming is best-known for the guidance he provided Japanese industry to improve well beyond their North American counterparts, he also saw the causes for poor performance as traceable to how we educate our kids, and in turn inextricably linked to a widely-misunderstood concept, “variation”.
To illustrate, in his last book, The New Economics, he relates the story of Mr. Heero Hacquebord and his six year old daughter’s experience at school:
“She came home in a few weeks with a note from the teacher with the horrible news that she had been given two tests, and this little girl was below-average in both tests. Warning to the parents that trouble lies ahead. Other parents received the same note, and were worried. They wished to believe Mr. Haquebord’s words of comfort that such comparisons meant nothing, but they were afraid to. Other parents received notes. For example, your little boy was above-average in both tests. Prepare for a genius coming up. Or your little girl was above-average on the first test, but sank to below-average on the second test.
The little girl learned that she was below-average in both tests. The news affected her adversely. She was humiliated, inferior. Her parents put her in a school that nourishes confidence, she flourished.”
For Deming, the poor performance of companies and organizations could be traced back to the education system and the only way forward is transformation.
Deming’s teachings here were taken up by Mt. Edgcumbe HS in Sitka Alaska, and can be found in the work of educators who have presented their findings at Deming Institute events like the Deming in Education Seminar series.
TL;DR: A man named W.E. Deming saw student performance on tests having more to do with the system that taught them that the student themselves. Consequently, grading is more a reflection of the system’s performance (and those who manage it) — saying a student is above or below average is meaningless in such a system. To restore meaning, the system must be transformed.