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Education Opinion

Towards a Learning State: California’s Journey Toward Continuous Improvement

By Contributing Blogger — November 21, 2016 5 min read

During the industrial age, education required standardization and strict adherence to rigid learning sequences. Today, as we move full throttle into an increasingly globalized era, we must cultivate new educational systems that prepare our children for meaningful participation and growth in a new world.

In California, we have been on a remarkable journey in recent years, moving away from outdated, centralized state systems to flexible, local control.

The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) California adopted in 2013 moves equity into the driver’s seat for this journey; it provides districts great flexibility in creating continuous improvement plans for teaching and learning for all students, especially those with the greatest needs - English learners, foster youth, and those from low-income families.

Yet, during the first three years of LCFF implementation, most of California’s attention focused on system accountability: how we determine whether we have been successful. In September, the State Board of Education (SBE) took a remarkable step forward with this work by adopting the first phase of the LCFF Evaluation Rubrics, which spell out how we measure school and district progress.

Now California faces a deeper challenge: a shift in focus from accountability to building systems of supports that foster success. As state board President Mike Kirst has noted, ”... [we] must move now from the back end of accountability to the front end of capacity.

To do this, California has committed to a path of continuous improvement, but what does this mean, and how will we get there?

We believe the continuous improvement process underway at the California Department of Education (CDE) may serve as a model for this path.

Defining a Continuous Improvement Theory of Change

Continous improvement is a process that:

...learns from experience by carefully measuring the effectiveness of different policies and practices, supporting the intrinsic motivation of educators and stakeholders, sharing best and promising practices, cultivating a culture of reflection and learning, encouraging innovation, and making changes based on learning.

To promote their ongoing success, high-performing education systems rely on cycles of inquiry, where participants reflect and analyze current practice and then collaborate to support growth and improve their results. Similarly, we know that successful education change efforts engage change makers at the school, district, and state levels in reflection, planning, and action in ongoing cycles of engagement.

We can then posit a continuous improvement theory of change that intentionally links inquiry into what works with effective stakeholder engagement.

Theory of Change

Cycles of Inquiry X Cycles of Engagement = Continuous Improvement

Practicing What We Preach

The CDE is building its own continuous improvement capacity by implementing a key recommendation of our Blueprint 2.0 strategic plan: In order to better serve and support districts and LEAs...continue work to build the CDE’s capacity for service and support.

Our process for building our own capacity, aptly called “CDE Team Advancement,” includes creating our own continuous improvement Cycle of Inquiry methodology: “Discover, Design, and Deliver.” Discover—what works well, strengths, and challenges; Designactions that will generate improvement; and Deliver— results. Repeat cycle. We always keep in mind the goal of our improvement efforts: better serving students.

CDE Team Advancement success hinges on the effective participation of as many CDE team members as possible in our Cycle of Engagement. We have now completed two of these cycles resulting in the creation, initial implementation, and evaluation of the CDE Team Advancement Plan.

Our efforts are producing results. For example, we created a Local Control and Accountability Support Team at the CDE to help all our districts work on our LCFF state priorities, which include improving parental engagement and school climate, and raising student achievement. We have launched a One System Action Team to serve the “whole child” from cradle to career, and we have initiated a variety of roundtable discussions to help all CDE employees deepen their knowledge about education issues such as LCFF and our new academic standards. One outside observer, noted, “I have seen a big shift in the ability of department staff to form effective teams across a previously very siloed work environment for both ad hoc and ongoing work efforts.”

We hope our CDE Team Advancement work will inspire California schools and districts to implement their own continuous improvement plans and that we can all learn from each other on this journey, because changing to a continuous improvement culture requires all of us.

Is California Ready for Continuous Improvement?

California has a unique opportunity to abandon the top-down, compliance modes of the past and initiate new forms of deep collaboration that will model the kinds of work environments our students will see in the future.

To do all of this, our state education department must alter the way it operates. In order to make California a learning state, its education agency must first become a learning community.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Tom Torlakson is the California Superintendent of Public Instruction. Glen Price is the chief deputy superintendent in the California Department of Education

For Further Reading:

Superintendent’s Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force, California Department of Education (2016), Preparing All Students for College, Career, Life, and Leadership in the 21st Century, Retrieved from: //

California Department of Education, Blueprint 2.0 Planning Team (2015). A Blueprint for Great Schools, Version 2.0. Retrieved from //

This cycle of inquiry is adapted from the Appreciative Inquiry “4D” cycle. See: //

The PLC methodologies developed by Rick and Becky DuFour, What is a Professional Learning Community?, Retrieved from:

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The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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