Friday, May 23, 2014

What is “Quality in Education?”

The May 2014 “View from the Q” topic raises the voice of closing keynote of the 2014 World Conference on Quality and Improvement (WCQI) regarding our title.  Michelle Rhee communicates the thesis that poor quality in education leads to a future of mediocrity.  Jennifer Stepniowski turns the message to a more personal aspect as her follow-on blog post describes her personal observations of the education system and what defines “quality in education” for her. 
I want to take a different perspective.  What is quality in education?  If quality is tied to purpose (education output), what are the characteristics of good quality in education?  Is it standard test achievement?  Is it dollars spent per student?  Is it the number of Ph.D’s produced?  Given these traditional metrics of educational quality (they are all trending higher) and the state of our world (the press seems to think we are stagnating or trending downward, sorry Honda) are we measuring the right things?
I would argue that quality in education needs to be defined as enhancing the young’s desire to learn.  As part of being human, we are born with a curious streak.  At a young age, a child has a long inquisitive streak that for most parents never seem to be satisfied.  For most parents, the number of why-questions in a child’s first five years of life borders on the thousands.   That number rapidly degenerates once they hit the formal education process.  Why?  The current education system is based on conformity—the antithesis of a questioning mind.  Our public schools are taking on the appearance of warehouses and prisons as education systems are more worried sometimes about litigation fallout rather than graduation dropout.
I would argue that a quality education system manifests itself as a person ages.  Valued workers possess initiative, willingness to take calculated risks, and are willing to learn new skills.  Does our current education system support nurturing these characteristics? 
Initial studies on extending a person’s physical and mental health include mental exercises (puzzles and the like) but also learning new things.   The continual remapping of brain neural pathways is an important part of life once we retire from active work.  Again, how does our education system support this?
To me, the question for the quality community should not address quality in education but how to redesign the education system to support our current world and to build in design flexibility such that the education system is able to change as our world changes.  As quality experts we should be helping design the next education system.  As part of that we need to consider what roles quality plays in developing those inquisitive characteristics of life-long learning such that they will exist for future generations.