A Text Book Case of Applying Deming to K-12 Education

"We will never transform our prevailing system of management without transforming the prevailing system of education - they are the same system."

- W. Edwards Deming


The growth of Leander Independent School District (LISD) – which is located 25 miles northwest of Austin, Texas – from just six campuses and 5,000 students in 1991 to serving 33,000 students through 37 campuses today is an inspiring story about seeking quality, finding guidance, and ultimately transforming a K-12 educational system into one of the best in the country today. For over a quarter of a century, Monta Akin, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, has been leading LISD in applying many of Dr. Deming’s theories and teachings within a K-12 environment. When asked to identify the catalyst for changing an age-old system of education and embarking on a journey of transformation that continues today, Akin is clear and concise: “It all started with the feeling that we could do better.”


Seeking Quality And Finding Guidance

The desire to do better and improve quality is common to all leaders who have embraced and applied Dr. Deming’s theories and teachings to their organization. Less common is how they first discover Dr. Deming. In Akin’s case, it was serendipitous. As she explains it, “I was up one night flipping through TV channels when I caught the tail end of a documentary called Quality…Or Else. I started to get goose bumps from what I was hearing. It was about quality and improvement – all the things that we were talking about and wanted for our school. And they kept referring to ideas associated with a man named Deming. I knew I had to find out more.”

Monta Akin, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services (LISD)

Anyone who has spent time with Akin knows she revs at a higher rpm than most people. So it’s not surprising that in just a few short weeks after her television epiphany, she had gathered and began to read any book she could find about Dr. Deming, including one of his seminal books, Out of the Crisis.

Akin admits that they struggled with the text and interpreting some of Dr. Deming’s ideas for K-12 education (and was grateful when The New Economics was published in 1993).

But they knew they were on to something. So when they heard about a seminar in Dallas conducted by David P. Langford*, founder of Langford International, Inc., covering processes for continual quality improvement in K-12 education based on Dr. Deming’s work, Akin jumped at the opportunity to attend with nine colleagues. (Langford was featured in the PBS documentary Quality...Or Else.) Indeed, for Akin and her colleagues the 1991 seminar in Dallas was nothing less than game changing, and the relationship they established between Langford International, Inc. and LISD continues to this day.

Akin recounts with pride, “We came back from Dallas charged with excitement, asking ourselves, what did our system look like? And what could we do to improve it? We worked with the Plan, Do, Study, Act Cycle and identified 12 improvements we wanted to make. We also drew up our own system flowchart, and began to see different types of relationships, including new opportunities to work upstream with parents and younger children, and downstream with partners like local trade schools and colleges.”

Over the years, and due in large part to Akin’s leadership, LISD has put into practice many of Dr. Deming’s theories and teachings. They have developed a true appreciation for systems thinking. They have utilized the learning and knowledge that can be gained from the PDSA Cycle. They have created control charts and analysis of common and special case variance within the LISD system. And they have cultivated important humanistic, motivational, and psychological factors that Dr. Deming addressed in his System of Profound Knowledge.

Overcoming Obstacles And Driving Out Fear

Introducing, establishing, and utilizing Dr. Deming’s theories and teachings as a guiding force within LISD, as is the case with most organizations that seek to find a new way through Deming, has not always been a smooth and seamless process. For Akin, one obstacle in particular stands out – teacher evaluations.

They took their request to remove teacher evaluations from LISD to the Texas State Commissioner of Schools, and were granted a waiver, but only under certain conditions. They had to agree to develop a new process to regularly evaluate their staff. With the help of an improvement team composed of teachers and central office staff, they set out to unbundle the teacher evaluation system into two parts: a revised evaluation system focused on issues related to rehiring and a teacher portfolio system focused on ongoing learning and self-improvement. These requirements would put a smile on the face of anyone who’s familiar with Dr. Deming’s 14 Points for the Transformation of Management, since points 6 and 13 are specifically concerned with an organization making available for its staff ongoing training and self-improvement programs.

The annual teacher evaluation is ubiquitous in K-12 education in America today. Like merit rating and quotas, it is the kind of managerial practice that Dr. Deming deplored. His famous Red Bead Experiment dramatically illustrated the fallacy of rating people by ranking them in order of performance. Performance evaluations of workers can also be dehumanizing, impede cooperation, and perhaps most importantly shift management’s attention away from focusing on the system, which is where important information resides and meaningful improvements can be made.

Akin recalls a pivotal meeting with her colleagues not long after their work started to gain traction in the classroom, as well as the attention of school administrators and officials outside LISD. “We discussed at great length point number 8 of Deming’s 14 Points for Management – ‘Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.’ We asked teachers what was the greatest source of fear in the system for them – and they immediately came to consensus that the biggest fear for teachers is the annual performance evaluation. We concluded that, if at all possible, fear had to be removed from our new system.”


Where is Deming Today in LISD?

There’s no doubt that Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge® (SoPK) has had a profound and lasting effect on the LISD educational system and instructional process. However, as Akin points out, “It’s not always easy to see Deming in the classroom. When teachers visit our classrooms, they see chairs, desks, computers, and blackboards. They shake their heads and wonder, what’s so different? It’s not until you have a conversation with students and staff that those differences emerge.” It is easier to see Dr. Deming’s theories and teachings in how LISD articulates its K-12 educational system and instructional process today, particularly in three key LISD concepts – the Leander Way, the LISD Graduate Profile, and the Leander Learning Model.

The Leander Way can be viewed as a foundational concept that is comprised of three interrelated components – build, think and create. Systems and continual improvement are explicitly referenced in The Leander Way and map directly to Dr. Deming’s SoPK. Other important aspects of The Leander Way, such as relationships, excellence, passion for working/learning, trust and ethical behavior, though not exactly the words used by Dr. Deming, are also found in SOPK.

The LISD Graduate Profile is a list of skills and abilities that each LISD student will know and be able to demonstrate upon graduation. It is referred to as “…the singular purpose of our existence.” In this respect, the Graduate Profile is an articulation of “the aim” of the LISD educational system. For Dr. Deming, any successful system must have a stated aim, which all the constituents, along with all the connections and interactions of the system work together to accomplish. Succinctly, Superintendent Bret Champion articulates this aim: Students will exit our system with the same passion for learning they had when they entered our system, having achieved high academics and strong character, without economics determining their success.

The Leander Learning Model is a diagram of the processes needed to reach that aim. The Leander Learning Model is comprehensive in nature and complex by design, encompassing the entire set of LISD practices and philosophies, including The Leader Way and Graduate Profile. The Model is represented as concentric circles and quadrants of information, with the student placed at the center of focus. In this respect, the Model is less an actual articulation of SOPK and more a graphical depiction of its conceptual underpinnings of – holistic and non-linear, interconnections and interdependencies, and layered and multifaceted.


The LISD Story Doesn’t End Here

The story of LISD is testament to the transformative power and the quality that can be achieved through the application of Dr. Deming’s theories and teachings.

However, Akin would be the first to tell you that while LISD has made great strides over the years in providing its students with a quality K-12 education, its work is far from being completed. That’s because the goal and practice of continual improvement has become fully engrained in the LISD instructional process and educational system. It’s also why the story of LISD will only continue to get better.


Outstanding Outcomes Year After Year

The Leander Independent School District continually excels in key areas of assessment and performance, with scores that are well above the state and national standards. These include:

•  Closing the performance gap between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students

•  Increasing the high school completion rate for all students

•  Increasing the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the commended standard on state assessment metrics

•  Posting higher PSAT scores (11th Graders) compared to state and national scores in the areas of critical reading, math and writing

•  Maintaining low turnover and high retention rates for classroom teachers


To learn more about the Leander Independent School District, and find out how your school can start on a pathway of continual improvement, we invite you to contact the Deming Institute today.

*David P. Langford and Quality Learning
David P. Langford is an international consultant, author, and educator whose focus is to create sustained systemic improvement in student learning, school leadership, and organizational processes largely based on the theories and teachings of Dr. Deming. His company provides consulting, customized training, workshops and in-depth seminars
specific to:

  • Systems Thinking
  • Problem-Solving Using PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act)
  • How to Study Variation and It’s Effect on a System
  • Data Collection and Analysis
  • Learning Process Documentation
  • How to Build and Strengthen Communication Networks
  • Portfolio Development and Organization

Explore More - Videos

Explore More - Podcasts

Monta Akin, The 20 Year Deming Journey at Leander Independent School District

Bret Champion, Students Are More Than Test Scores

Explore More - Further Read

The Memo That Started It All At LISD: In February 1993, Monta Akin wrote a memo that provided an overview of the systems approach to improving the quality of instruction at LISD that had been developed by district and campus administrators. It also identified 12 specific areas for improvement, and outlined a concrete plan of action.

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