Deming: We've Been `Sold Down the River on Competition'

SELDON WHITAKER, superintendent of high schools in State College, Pa., remembers meeting W. Edwards Deming at the close of one of his famous four-day seminars. On learning Mr. Whitaker's profession, the quality-management sage asked, "Did you get rid of grades yet?"

"No."

"Do it Monday."

"It's not that simple...."

"Do it Monday."

The exchange reveals Dr. Deming as a man utterly convinced of certain ideas to which many Americans are opposed.

Asked if any United States companies have put his ideas into practice, he responds: "Not that I know of. Maybe Ford," a company that hired him as a consultant.

Deming's air of disappointment can be taken with a grain of salt: Thousands of people have been reading his books or books indebted to his ideas. Boston University recently gave him an honorary degree, after which he spoke with the Monitor.

He opposes giving out grades in schools for the same reason he objects to the currently popular idea of "pay for performance" at companies: These approaches encourage individuals to "try hard," downplaying management's responsibility to keep improving the overall system.

America has "been sold down the river on competition" as a way of improving performance, Deming says. What's needed instead, he says, is "profound knowledge." This means ideas from outside that can improve a system.

Deming argues that numeric goals or quotas often encourage participants in the system to fudge numbers or cheat customers to meet the goals. He cites Sears Roebuck's automotive-service centers, which were found last year to be selling unneeded services to customers. In "The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education," recently published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Deming attributes the problem to targets set by Sears.

But American goal-setting seems to be growing. Last month the Clinton administration announced Goals 2000, which would expand a Bush-administration initiative to set national objectives for students, teachers, and schools. Still, Whitaker says Deming's approach can mesh with a "results" focus, since he outlines "processes to achieve those results."

Grades are unlikely to go out of style, educators say, but some foresee changes in the grading process. Many share Deming's distaste for grading on a curve. And some advocate more-frequent testing so deficiencies can be corrected along the way.

"Don't wait till the end of the year to give a test and then fail some people," says William Hartman, director of the Center for Total Quality Schools at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

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