Tinkering Toward Better Schools
A Wisconsin District Goes All In on 'Continuous Improvement' Strategies
Menomonee Falls, Wis.
It's been said time and again, there's no silver bullet in education. But the urge to find one often leaves districts with a constant churn of new leaders, new initiatives, and new short-lived training that results in equally short-lived gains.
That's why, for the 4,000-student Menomonee Falls district, northwest of Milwaukee, real improvement means slowing way down and making sure everyone carries a piece of the load.
"We're not about chasing random attempts to improve a particular thing," said Patricia Greco, the Menomonee Falls superintendent. "We are building a culture where everyone is thinking of how they can improve."
The district is far from the first to adopt "continuous improvement," an umbrella term for an array of problem-solving techniques coupled with constant feedback and experimentation by students, teachers, and staff members. But Menomonee Falls may be one of the districts in which the approach has been the most pervasive, affecting the way everyone from teachers to secretaries to custodians approach day-to-day problems and long-term planning.
And the approach appears to be working. In the past six years, the district has become one of the top-performing school systems in the state—even as it has faced a 70 percent decline in state funding during the same time.
Most individual initiatives at Menomonee Falls show significant but sometimes small growth. What's particularly interesting is the breadth of what has improved across the district. Attendance and participation in Advanced Placement courses have increased, but so has participation in community recreation and the involvement of older residents in school activities. Students' performance in state math tests has risen, at the same time buses have run more efficiently and technology support comes faster for teachers. Suspensions have dropped, as have workers' compensation claims. It's not any one improvement—it's all parts of the district, moving together.
As such, Menomonee Falls offers a window into what continuous improvement can look like in practice, across all school departments.
The changes were sparked back in 2011, during a tumultuous time in a normally placid education community.
"We had the perfect storm," said Faith VanderHorst, the president and an 11-year veteran of the school board. The state had begun cutting budgets and limiting teachers' unions' negotiating ability. The former superintendent left, and the district entered its second year of being designated "in need of improvement" under federal accountability rules. It was a wake-up call for the mostly white, middle- and working-class community.
"We wanted data-driven decisionmaking, but we didn't know how to get it," VanderHorst recalled. "We were caught in the trap of the latest-and-greatest program. ... Teachers were just going from one new thing to the next, and nothing was really improving."
That changed when the board hired Greco as the new superintendent. She had become fascinated with continuous improvement during her graduate research and persuaded the board to formally adopt the approach and commit to both training all staff members and learning the concept's strategies themselves. The school board audited and realigned its budget process and moved from holding hourslong annual budget discussions to quicker updates every 45 days.
Doing so allowed the district to set priorities and know that the board and staff understood them, Greco said: "We don't want ... improvement where what takes 10 years to build can take 30 seconds to pull down at a school board meeting."
The quicker and more frequent monitoring and budgeting has led to departments becoming more aware of and supportive of each others' needs.
That has helped the district cope financially with years of state budget tightening.
After analyzing high workers' compensation claims in 2013, the district conducted an audit of the most common hazards. A team including a school nurse, special education teacher, cafeteria worker, and facilities and custodial staff then reviewed each building to find problem areas.
In many cases, simple fixes made a big difference. "You look in all these classrooms and see decorations on all the ceilings. Well, how did those get up there? As an employee, you don't think twice about doing that yourself until you see how many people fall doing that," said Corey Golla, the director of curriculum and learning. "Just putting more ladders in buildings and teaching staff about falling risks helped."
Since the new safety protocols were put into place, workers' compensation costs have dropped from $200,000 a year to $26,000 a year, said Mark Nadolski, the school board treasurer.
At Benjamin Franklin Elementary, for example, facilities-staff members worked with the school's health aide to document the reasons for students' medical visits each month. October had about the same total number of visits, 400, but the number of injuries had skyrocketed, from 150 in October 2016 to 300 in the same month in 2017. Digging deeper, they found 80 percent of those visits came at recess.
The school had just combined with another elementary, producing a significantly younger overall population. Principal Cassie Martin said new students didn't understand the new playground rules, and new teachers supervised differently.
"We had a lot of snowball injuries; we realized we had to reteach that you can't play on metal surfaces when there's snow," she said. Reconfiguring where teachers were positioned and teaching new safety rules cut the number of playground injuries in half the following month in a state where wintry weather can arrive in the early fall.
Likewise, when the district faced state budget cuts in 2016-17 that would have forced it to lay off 18 kindergarten teachers, the custodial staff reviewed its own work costs. The district switched out inefficient cleaning equipment and provided new training for custodial workers to use the existing equipment more effectively, as well as develop their skills to become facilities managers.
"We had a machine to do classroom floors, and it would take me 10 to 12 hours," said Tom Hintze, the facility foreman for North Middle School. "We reached out to a vendor to show us how to use it properly, and it cut that time in half."
School custodians also asked for feedback from teachers on how to prioritize cleaning.
"Just having teachers and students straighten furniture in the room before they leave can save five to 10 minutes of cleaning per room," Hintze said.
All told, the new training and facilities protocols saved the district more than $100,000 a year in cleaning costs—enough to save 3½ of the threatened teacher positions.
It also got teachers and custodians working together more closely, which Golla said has helped the district fight absenteeism during flu season more effectively by monitoring health data and providing rapid deep-cleaning when students start to get sick.
"Our custodial staff got a standing ovation from teachers, and that never would have happened before," said Jeff Stollenwerk, a learning and improvement specialist at Menomonee Falls High School.
The district has also expanded professional development for facilities staff, both in keeping current on new equipment but also in devising certification in more advanced facilities and management.
"Half of our staff are not teachers; they are bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teaching assistants, custodians ... any one of them can ruin a child's day or make a positive difference for them," Greco said. "The culture of the buildings shifted because half of our employees felt for the first time they were important to the organization."
Building Staff Capacity
In fact, the district has trained literally everybody it employs—from all 300 teachers to office staff, custodians, and bus drivers—in problem-solving frameworks such as the "plan, do, study, act" cycle and the business-oriented Six Sigma. It partners with the local Concordia University, the Carnegie Foundation, and Studer Education for Improvement to provide training on both management and ways to think about systemic change for principals and others in leadership positions. And it brought staff members on both the teaching and nonteaching sides together for some of that training.
"When I first started, it was like, you're a custodian, whatever," said Chris Carlton, the district facilities manager. "The whole culture has changed 100 percent. Now, we have professional development, CPR training, facilities master certification; we don't want to hold people back."
The ongoing training has helped the district retain staff members in a highly competitive labor market near Milwaukee. It has been named one of the state's "best places to work" for three years in a row.
Putting Out Fires Faster
That has also led to staff members being more willing to take the lead when problems arise day to day. For example, when Ben Franklin Elementary combined with another school, adding 500 students and seven new buses, the end of the day turned to chaos. Some students got home an hour late.
"These are 4-, 5-, 6-year-olds, and the parents start to get very nervous when it has been 10 minutes and the bus hasn't come," said Pauline Sullivan, an administrative assistant in the school's front office.
Sullivan and other front-office staff, who had received Six Sigma training, worked to diagnose the key problems: Students in younger grades boarded the wrong buses, lines ran into each other, and there was no central repository for notes from parents about changes to their students' pickup spot. She began trying quick fixes, such as pinning pickup tags to students and having the students at the front of each line for a bus hold signs, while she tracked the daily times for the last bus leaving school and completing delivery. They have cut back time by more than an hour, to 4 p.m., for the last drop-off.
"In the past, I might tell parents, 'Yes, there's a problem, but we're working on it,' " Principal Martin said. "This year, I could explain the deployment plan, and you could see the parents' anxiety levels drop because we were taking it so seriously."
Bringing students and families into more conversations about how to solve problems in the district has also improved instruction.
Across content areas and schools, teachers now ask for significantly more formal feedback from students. From kindergarten up, students learn to keep a data journal of their own goals for the month. They use scores on class quizzes and projects to track their own progress on different skills. They also reflect on which strategies they have used and which ones helped them.
A student in Julie Poetzel's North Middle science class, for example, compared scores on recent experiment reports to find his reasoning had improved. The student credited his use of idea maps and "annotations, which made it easier to find journal-worthy topics."
Both Poetzel and social studies teacher Stollenwerk said asking students to track their own growth and give teachers more feedback on what worked for them led to "a better attitude in the classroom."
"When I was a student, I don't ever remember being asked what strategies work for you; I don't even remember thinking about it myself," Stollenwerk said. I ask my students that ... and I see kids more consciously reflecting on it."
Poetzel said the regular feedback has also given her more insight into class dynamics; several students mentioned that they preferred her to assign partners for group work, because they felt uncomfortable saying no to friends.
Menomonee Falls senior Shauna Xiong, who just finished a quarterly data check-in, said the data folders and check-ins with teachers helped her transition to high school from middle school. "After every test, we do a survey: Did you use mnemonics or [other strategies]? Did you have anxiety? How do you think you did? If you had poor performance, do you think it was poor effort, time management, understanding, or were you distracted?" she said. "My studying style has not gotten quicker, but it's better."
Students with disabilities have also been asked to take a more active part in their special education planning, developing goals with teachers and parents. For students in 3rd grade and older, that means presenting PowerPoints on their progress at each meeting of their individualized education plan teams.
Braiden Sims, a 5th grader at Valley View Elementary, really wanted to make more friends. Teachers helped him look back at previous fights he had been involved in and plan ways to respond differently. "I've been working on figuring out the size of problems," he said in one recent presentation. "Sometimes, things are a '1,' and I would work them up to a '5'."
Sims described his bus-ride data, which showed him sitting in his assigned seat and behaving, earning kudos from his driver—and a friend who began talking to him.
Talking through his goals and progress before a group of adults was on its own a win for Sims, who in a prior school had frequent outbursts and was often restrained or sent home.
"A lot of times as a special education teacher you are coming up with IEP goals based on your understanding of the student, and it's not always very relevant to what the student wants," said Jessica Shafe, a special education teacher at Benjamin Franklin. "When they are a part of creating it, that buy-in is so much more significant."
Districtwide, suspensions have dropped 62 percent in the last five years, with other disciplinary actions likewise declining.
Greco is quick to note that while the district is pleased with its progress, there is no point when she thinks it will be "done."
"Often, our public reporting of schools tells us that the book cover is good, and we assume that if the book cover is good, everything is good," said Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of AdvancED, a school accreditation group that has studied school improvement but was not involved in Menomonee's transformation. "And rarely if ever is that the case," he said. "It's not an annual event, … it's a journey. You must tend to the norms in your schools."
Vol. 37, Issue 19, Pages 1, 14, 16Published in Print: February 7, 2018, as Tinkering Toward a Better Education System