Governor Ted Strickland, in his inaugural speech last January, made a big commitment to reform Ohio education. He said, “The goal of making our schools and colleges work cannot be achieved with simply more and more money. We must be willing and brave enough to take bold steps to reform and renew the system of education itself.” Since the time of that speech, Ohioans have been waiting to see what steps toward education reform that Strickland would advance.

Strickland’s promise to reform “the system of education itself,” suggests that Strickland is thinking of applying “total quality” reforms to Ohio’s schools. The “Total Quality Management” (TQM) movement, much written about, particularly impacted the American auto industry; TQM was a response to the quality challenge of Japanese and German manufacturers and was inspired by quality gurus such as W. Edwards Deming.

TQM theory could be applied to educational systems and it would be encouraging to know that Strickland, in fact, is being influenced by TQM thinking. TQM sees quality as flowing from “the system itself,” and emphasizes that the key to quality is organizational structure and overall management. Deming made the astounding claim that 85% of quality issues are determined by organizational structure, and that only 15% of quality issues are determined by personnel qualifications, work rules, etc.

TQM would give Strickland a comprehensive strategy by which to attack the issue of how to reform schools. What most school reforms emphasize is strategies for tinkering with the 15% of quality issues, and this tinkering, usually expensive, always results in disappointment. TQM demands that management deal with the crucial 85% — the system’s organizational structure. The reform of organizational structure is the reform that public education in Ohio needs, and, it sounds like Strickland wants to move this type of major reform toward reality.

The power of overall organizational structure to influence quality is illustrated by the poor quality produced by communist factories. While communist East Germany, prior to 1989, was producing the lemon car called the Trabant, capitalist West Germany was producing quality autos like the Volkswagen and the Mercedes. The Trabant factory was organized inefficiently and was kept going by government subsidies. Tinkering with the Trabant production — through imposing ever more government inspections or through new rewards and punishments for its workers or through new management rules — failed to change the Trabant into a quality product. Only a vast change in organizational structure could have had the quality impact that was needed and the political will to make such massive change never materialized.

When Strickland, or any objective observer, looks over Ohio’s education system, the Trabant comes more to mind than the Volkswagen, and certainly more so than the Mercedes. The Trabant sought to satisfy its bosses by meeting minimum requirements, the Mercedes sought to delight its customers by establishing ever new standards of unexpected quality. Regardless of their poor quality, the Trabant was the only choice for East Germans and was protected and advocated by powerful East German politicians and opinion makers, so, East Germans, pawns in the system, worked hard and waited many months to qualify for a Trabant purchase.

Ohio citizens have a lemon in their education system, a lemon that is protected and advocated by powerful politicians and by a faulty evaluation system that unjustifiably puffs districts up with the inflated rating of “excellent.” (See my article.) The only way to transform this lemon is through fundamental system change.

To change Ohio’s education system from one focused on producing government minimums, ala the Trabant, to one focused on releasing the tremendous potential for quality of Ohio citizens, ala the Mercedes, is an awesome goal. Such transformation will require years and much effort and the only impetus that will bring about such transformation is public demand. But, a public that buys the idea that a state rating of “excellent” of its schools is valid, is not a public that is looking for much school reform. If the public could see the quality of a Mercedes, if the public could see that acquiring a Mercedes involves no additional cost, the public would demand a Mercedes model for its schools. Ohio law gives local boards of education tremendous authority to organize local schools according to the desires of local citizens — the problem is, without good alternatives, the desires of local citizens are focused on the Trabant.

Charter schools were supposed to herald system change by developing and bringing to reality new examples of quality education. For example, they were supposed to provide teachers that could better conduct a, say, a spanish clep practice test. But charter schools have never seriously tried to produce quality alternatives, but instead, have basically copied the failed and inadequate structures of public education. Charter schools have copied the structure of pubic schools that rely on hierarchical boss control, minimum standards and mass inspection; charter schools have copied the public schools practice of giving the most generous remuneration to administration, and have copied public school practices that degrades the role of teachers. Charter schools, under incompetent Republican administration, have failed to produce market alternatives of quality, and, at best, have barely met minimum standards. Where charter schools have shown success is in finding the means to enrich unscrupulous entrepreneurs via never ending public funds.

Attempting to change the basic organizational structure of public schools would be fiercely resisted. The question would arise: why should we change our school system if it is already rated “excellent”? The only way that public education will change is through public demand, and public demand will only be generated through the demonstration of powerful alternative school models. Quality charter schools would provide the best opportunity to demonstrate how, through reorganization, schools could save money and at the same time how schools could achieve new high standards of quality. Reconstituted charter schools of quality, I believe, would inspire public demand that would press local boards to take the hard steps of authentic reform. Local boards, comforted by an entrenched education establishment, will not give up on their Trabant thinking unless they see powerful examples of what positive reform can accomplish, and unless their public demands reform.

Gov. Strickland was recently quoted in the NY Times about charter schools: “Perhaps somewhere, charter schools have been implemented in a defensible manner, where they have provided quality. But the way they’ve been implemented in Ohio has been shameful. I think charter schools have been harmful, very harmful, to Ohio students.”

Yes, charter schools in Ohio have been a disappointment, but, Strickland should not take the easy political path and simply discard them. Gov. Strickland should enlist the educational community, and should provide strong incentives for participation, to think through defensible models for exemplary charter schools, models based on sound education and motivation theory and sound principles of organizational structure. The process for soliciting and rewarding participation could be through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

If Strickland truly could, “be willing and brave enough to take bold steps to reform and renew the system of education itself,” he would transform Ohio’s current doldrums into an exciting hope of a great future. Charter schools offer a powerful opportunity. Charter schools, rightly developed and rightly administered, could be an important part of a comprehensive bold school reform strategy. Gov. Strickland, in order to meet his goal of system renewal, should develop exemplary charter schools and use these good examples of school reform to stimulate public demand for authentic and widespread school system reform.