Q&A: Making the Most of 'Continuous Improvement' in State ESSA Plans

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States’ plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act will help guide their K-12 policy for the forseeable future. And a number of states embraced the concept of “continuous improvement” as part of the plans they submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, even though the law itself is largely silent on the concept. How can a continuous improvement approach help states support low-performing schools, improve achievement across the board, bolster the work of their own education agencies, and even refine the ESSA plans themselves?

To help unpack that question, Education Week caught up with Dan Gordon, a senior legal and policy advisor at EducationCounsel, a policy organization in Washington. Gordon has authored two reports on how states can use continuous improvement to make the most of the opportunities in ESSA, one for EducationCounsel and another for the Council of Chief State School Officers. He also contributed to a report by Results for America that tracked continuous improvement and more in ESSA plans. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The phrase “continuous improvement” barely appears in ESSA. Why did so many states make the concept a significant part of their ESSA plan?

In general, there’s a growing recognition that there really are no silver bullets in education. Instead, we have to be ready, willing, and able to learn from our successes and our failures in order to get better over time, in ways both big and small.

Dan Gordon
Dan Gordon

“Continuous improvement” is actually written into ESSA more than many realize. For example, Title II [the main federal source of funding for teachers] requires states and districts to “use data and ongoing consultation … to continually update and improve” their strategies to support teachers and leaders. Sometimes the concept is called different things like “periodic review” or “continuous program improvement,” but overall there are a dozen or so provisions that push states in this direction.

As for the 35 states that emphasized the concept in their ESSA plans, we can break them down into two basic categories:

First, there are some states that have for a long time followed a theory of action based on continuous improvement. So it’s not surprising that they would also put it at the center of their ESSA plans. Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Tennessee are great examples here.

Second, as ESSA shifted federal law away from the compliance orientation of the No Child Left Behind Act, many states took the opportunity to rethink how they want to support districts and drive improvement for students. For some of them, like Arkansas and Georgia, the result was a new or increased emphasis on continuous improvement.

Is continuous improvement all about fixing low-performing schools? Or is that just part of the picture?

In most instances, “school improvement” and “continuous improvement” refer to distinct but overlapping concepts. In the context of ESSA, “school improvement” is about how states and districts will improve student outcomes in a specific set of schools identified for improvement under the state’s annual accountability system. The question “continuous improvement” addresses is how education systems at every level can constantly be engaged in learning and improving—where we innovate, evaluate, and set new standards of care that advance equity and outcomes.

See Also: Continuous Improvement: A Closer Look

All schools can benefit from these continuous improvement approaches, whether they are in place at the state, district, school, and even classroom level. In fact, many state plans emphasize continuous improvement ... beyond their plans for school improvement, whether it’s how the states support teachers and leaders, provide technical assistance, engage families and other stakeholders, or help districts and schools meet the needs of students with disabilities and English-learners.

Conversely, schools identified for improvement shouldn’t be excluded from continuous improvement efforts either. ... Continuous improvement can support both small, steady gains as well as breakthrough innovations, and these schools need to be in a position to benefit from both.

Continuous improvement can also be applied to processes used at the state education agency, and ESSA plans themselves. Which states are the standouts on this?

ESSA requires that state plans themselves “be periodically reviewed and revised as necessary … to reflect changes in the state’s strategies and programs.” Some states included in their submissions very concrete timelines for reviewing and potentially revising elements of their plans, such as which indicators to include in accountability systems (e.g., the District of Columbia) or how best to identify schools for improvement (e.g., Oklahoma).

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Others made notable commitments to using continuous improvement approaches across the [state education agency] itself. Tennessee, for example, has established strong internal continuous-improvement routines and is also leveraging the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a research-practice partnership with Vanderbilt University. Massachusetts has charged one of its teams—the Office of Planning and Research—to ensure all aspects of the state’s ESSA implementation are continuously improving.

Colorado has studied the effectiveness (and cost-effectiveness) of the many ways it supports school improvement and is continuously improving the “match” between a district’s needs and the state-provided opportunity.

What would be your advice to states and districts that want to use ESSA implementation to adopt a continuous improvement approach?

Think big. Don’t just focus on implementing continuous improvement processes (whether “plan-do-study-act” cycles or another framework). If the goal is to switch from a compliance mindset to a continuous improvement one, states and districts have to build a more comprehensive learning system. This means not only the technical structures and practices needed to use data to improve outcomes, but also—and even more importantly—building and strengthening a learning culture at all levels to meet the adaptive challenges at the heart of this work.

Think together. States, districts, and schools will only get so far with continuous improvement while working in silos. Instead, they can build more buy-in and accelerate improvement by ensuring their learning systems are collaborative—whether it’s between state offices, across a network of school districts, in partnership with researchers, or among a variety of stakeholders including families, teachers, community partners, business leaders, and others.

Think long-term. This is hard work and may require big changes by staff and institutions that are used to doing things a certain way. Continuous improvement is not a “quick fix,” so stakeholders within and outside the system have to know that it’s here to stay through the inevitable ups and downs.

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