Taking a cue from industry

It's a well-known story: American industry, facing stiff competition from abroad, is streamlining its management techniques. Less well known, but just as significant, is a similar move among educational institutions:

* In Tulsa, Okla., superintendent of schools Larry Zenke has instituted a ''human resources'' style of management adopted from the Japanese and known loosely as Theory Z. It gives teachers a say in matters ranging from curriculum to class disruptions through a pyramid of councils which provides them with access to the highest levels of administration.

* The Muskegon, Mich., school district employs seven ''quality interaction circles'' that take up a variety of problems once a week and adhere to a procedural formula that includes consensus decisonmaking and strict courtesy toward each of the members. Muskegon has formed circles for middle managers, supervisors and directors, even clerical staff, in addition to those reserved for teachers.

* In Salt Lake City a tried-and-true technique known as management by objective has been used successfully for several years. Dr. Donald Thomas, superintendent of schools, credits it with raising average test scores from 6 months below the national average to one full year ahead of it.

The bitter lessons that America's aging industries are learning in the face of overseas competition from abroad and the switch to a technology-based economy at home are bearing sweet fruits in education.

Educators who are facing many of the same challenges as their counterparts in industry in terms of sagging production, complaints about quality, and teachers who are demanding more individual attention and recognition are beginning to take their cue from industry and involve teachers in the decisionmaking process.

''More and more schools are looking to industry to manage the enterprise we're about,'' says Mr. Zenke, the superintendent of public schools in Tulsa. ''Tulsa's school system is big business, and we have to treat it as such. We employ 5,000 people, have 92 manufacturing plants (we call them schools). We operate the largest transportation network in the state and the biggest hot-food service.''

Foremost among the new management concepts being borrowed from industry are quality circles - gatherings of half a dozen or more people to discuss, and propose solutions to, problems of the workplace.

James S. Bonner, director of special education for the Muskegon public schools and initiator of a quality-circle program there, estimates there are ''at least a hundred different education systems'' that are investigating the use of quality circles.

Besides involving teachers and others in management decisions, school systems are looking at other problems that have affected industry and have parallels in education. One is ''job fragmentation.''

An example of this phenomenon in industry is an auto worker whose job is limited to one function - perhaps one weld - which stunts the sense of accomplishment he or she might feel by doing a series of functions on a single car. By extension, job fragmentation is widely thought to hurt productivity. In education, job fragmentation occurs in school districts where textbooks, tests, and curricula are picked or designed by someone other than the teachers, chipping away at their control of the classrooms.

Some of the new management concepts, still struggling to find a place in industry, are meeting resistance in education as well. ''It's possible that our approach can become too mechanistic,'' Dr. Thomas says. ''There is a tendency to concentrate on a narrow band of objectives and thus reduce the humanistic approach. You have to guard against making high test scores and high attendance so high a priority that you lose sight of the broader goals.''

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