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Monday, August 30, 2010

Concepts of quality

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Dawn, 30 August, 2010
Quality has become a buzzword in the domain of education. Various forums propose a number of measures that can be used to enhance quality in the sector. Yet part of the problem is the lack of clarity in educational institutions and amongst their managers about the concepts of quality.

A related concern, especially for managers of educational institutions, is how to measure quality. In pursuit of some workable strategies for ensuring, sustaining and measuring quality, a number of methods and techniques have been explored by the corporate world, which conveniently defined the notion of quality in terms of efficiency and productivity.

This definition may encompass the requirements of a business organisation, where the emphasis is on maximum productivity and efficiency. But the meaning of quality that used to refer to individuals has become linked with systems and processes. A successful organisation needs to have efficient and effective systems, but the dominance of inflexible systems has reduced individual freedom and the space for creativity.

There is a problem with this definition of quality, i.e. efficiency and productivity, when it is applied as it is to educational institutions for the simple reason that schools are different from factories and businesses. According to leading UK educationist Stephen Ball, “Schools are complex, contradictory, sometimes incoherent organisations.” In schools we deal with knowledge and human beings. Knowledge, unlike the products of a factory, is tentative, subjective, relative and variable. By contrast, in factories consistent efforts are made to ensure that the product is identical regardless of the unit where they are manufactured.

Interestingly, during the past two decades in Pakistan, education has been turned into a growing industry where quality is viewed only in terms of efficiency and productivity. A number of commonalities can be found between schools and corporate organisations in the wake of the ‘corporatisation’ of education.

The criteria of success and quality are also borrowed from the corporate world. For instance, lately total quality management (TQM), which is purely a business strategy to implement and ensure quality, has been applied to educational institutions. In keeping with similar jargon, TQM has become a socially desirable requirement and many educational institutions have rushed to implement it.

The obvious attraction for managers of schools was that systems would dominate individuals and their performance could be measured in quantitative terms. The annual reports of teachers revolved around the quantification of their performance. In doing so, it was forgotten that there are certain aspects of quality that cannot be measured quantitatively. The quantitative evaluation of performance forces teachers to document every single job they do and over-represent themselves by making their performance reports more convincing. In doing this, the real essence of quality gets lost in the ‘noise’ of meaningless numbers.

Curiously, the success of schools is also measured through its visible features. Stephen Ball rightly observes that, “procedures and techniques which are intended to make schools more visible and accountable paradoxically encourage opacity and the manipulation of representations.”

Many of the jobs performed by labour in a factory can be carried out by machines and robots since factory products are predictable, uniform and visible. However, this cannot be done in an educational institution where a teacher deals with living human beings with individual sentiments, passions, likes and dislikes.Unfortunately, in some educational institutions, technical gadgetry such as multimedia machines and overhead projectors has taken over the teaching process and the role of the teacher has been reduced to that of an operator pressing the button. Such classrooms are devoid of vibrant knowledge and lack the dynamic process of critical thinking.

As systems and processes dominate the working of a corporate organisation, schools are also impacted by this trend. Now, teachers are reduced to mere implementers who use a textbook and are provided lesson plans and assessment questions. Thus the thinking part of the job is done by others and teachers act as mere consumers.

In some cases teachers of different branches of a chain of schools are given lesson plans designed by the secretariat. Such a highly centralised system views teachers as mere actors who do not, cannot and should not think or reflect on their own. Interestingly, the evaluation of faculty performance does not require a teacher to think or reflect before, during and after on his/her teaching.

The expectations of the management from teachers influence, shape and determine their practices. Schools need to wean themselves away from the visible aspect of quality to the invisible part of it, i.e. the quality of learning processes in classrooms. The visible part of quality would prompt teachers to gear up all resources to demonstrate their performance in terms of numbers. The problem with this method of assessment, however, is that there are certain aspects of quality that cannot be broken down into small units that can be measured and thus cannot be assessed through numerical criteria.

It is important to understand that business organisations and schools are very different entities. One deals with commodities and the other with living beings; one believes in the uniformity of products and the other should encourage diversity; one encourages mechanical implementation and the other should advocate reflective practice. Applying the quality criteria used by corporate organisations to schools may draw a misleading picture.

The writer is a professor and director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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