Every Student Succeeds Act

A Primer on Continuous School Improvement

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 06, 2018 7 min read

It’s one thing to boost test scores in individual schools from year to year. But as districts work to improve under the Every Student Succeeds Act, many are finding that boosting longer-term outcomes for students demands more systemic—and sustainable—change.

That’s the frustration driving the growing popularity of “continuous school improvement,” an umbrella term for frameworks and tools used to analyze and solve problems of policy and practice over time.

“The problem with continuous improvement is it’s becoming a buzzword—it’s in virtually everybody’s ESSA plan, but they haven’t unpacked what it is,” said Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of AdvancED, a school accreditation group that has studied school improvement.

In an ongoing study of more than 250,000 classrooms in 34,000 schools nationwide, AdvancED found schools that sustained strong improvement in student learning over time had a focus on continuous improvement and a few common practices, including clear direction that all staff members bought into, high expectations for student engagement, instruction centered on student collaboration, and a “healthy” student climate.

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“It’s a significant shift from developing evidence about programs to developing problem-solving evidence,” said Anthony Bryk, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has been at the forefront of research on continuous-improvement models. “We see needs and we put programs in place, but are the students most in need actually getting services and are the services doing any good?”

What Is Continuous School Improvement?

Continuous school improvement is a cyclical process intended to help groups of people in a system—from a class to a school district or even a network of many districts—set goals, identify ways to improve, and evaluate change.

The most common approaches seem to share a few concepts, such as: looking at problems as part of a system rather than as isolated episodes; working to improve policies and processes within that system; repeatedly testing assumptions about the causes of problems and their possible solutions; and involving those most affected by changes—like teachers and students—in deciding what tweaks to make. “We don’t want random acts of improvement,” said Patricia Greco, the superintendent of the Menomonee Falls, Wis., school district.

Are There Common Tools of the Trade?

Continuous school improvement pulls in many concepts and strategies from other fields, including manufacturing, technology, and health care. For example, Atul Gawande’s popular book, The Checklist Manifesto, notes that highly trained professionals across fields from surgery to aviation can become more efficient and prevent dangerous mistakes by using fairly simple checklists tailored for their fields. Each tool can be adopted on its own, but more often, several are used in the same district.

A few of the many often-mentioned tools or strategies are:

  • Design-based implementation research: An ongoing partnership is set up among educators, staff members, and researchers to design policies and interventions based on education research. Then they study the resulting implementation to build on the research going forward to both tailor it for a particular context and find broader practices. It is often used in plans to develop and incorporate new technology into the classroom.
    “Research, policy, and practice all tend to focus on averages, so much [so] that we can easily lose sight of what this perspective obscures,” Bryk said. The reality is that “there is no average child or average school context.”
  • Networked improvement communities: These are loose collections of schools and researchers that partner to analyze a specific problem—the transition to high school, for example—and propose and test solutions to it. Because many schools in different sites are often involved, they can coordinate to understand the problem in different contexts and test solutions with different groups of students. The network schools learn from each other and scale up effective practices more quickly.
  • Improvement science: The concept began in the health-care field, spurred by hospital hygiene experiments supported by the National Institutes of Health. The National Science Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences—the U.S. Department of Education’s research agency—have both sponsored grants to use improvement science in education settings.
    “It’s not good enough to figure out a problem; we have to launch our responses and test them,” said Diane Tavernner, founder and chief executive officer of the Summit Public Schools, a charter network in California and Washington.
  • Six Sigma: Originally a quality-management method developed at Motorola manufacturing in the 1980s, it involves a series of steps for identifying and removing problems in the process of meeting some goal. People earn “belts”—a ranking similar to that in martial arts—as they become expert in using the process to meet more and more complex goals.
  • Lean: Like Six Sigma, this model evolved from business practices. It is focused on increasing “value”—in the context of schools, something that directly improves the experience and learning of the student—by giving teachers, students, and school staff in classrooms more authority to identify problems and potential solutions.
  • Positive deviance: This is a process to investigate the differences across sites that underlie an average—be it a district’s average test score or the average effect of a new reading curriculum—to find places where the result is much stronger than average, and then try to identify lessons for other sites. In some districts, schools that are identified as “positive deviants” in a particular area are paired with others that are weaker in that same area.

What Does Federal Law Say About Continuous Improvement?

The Every Student Succeeds Act does not explicitly mention continuous improvement, implementation science, or other frameworks, but it does put a strong emphasis on districts devising their own plans for school improvement, rather than following federally prescribed strategies.

It also calls for states and districts to craft school improvement plans using interventions that show evidence of effectiveness for the students who would be served. In particular, the law encourages districts to “include ongoing efforts to examine the effects of such activity, strategy, or intervention.”

Several states have highlighted continuous-improvement strategies in their plans to implement ESSA. Vermont, for example, is experimenting with a new accountability system focused on continuous improvement. Its “education quality reviews” provide quantitative and qualitative data to help schools understand and respond to changes in their test scores. Similarly, California’s school funding formula, adopted in 2013, requires districts to set specific goals for improving student achievement and other outcomes, show how their spending supports those goals, and measure their progress.

Who Are Some of the Key Players?

Continuous school improvement builds on the work of organizations in a wide array of fields, and it is also gaining traction among foundations interested in education policy. Among them:

  • The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Stanford, Calif., is one of those at the forefront, with a nationwide network and an annual conference for those interested in implementing continuous improvement in a variety of forms.
  • The federal Institute of Education Sciences funds research grants for school districts and research partners to develop and study continuous improvement and approaches to changing school systems, rather than just applying particular interventions.
  • Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools, in Nashville, Tenn., SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning, in Menlo Park, Calif., and William Penuel’s National Center for Research in Policy and Practice all focus on design-based implementation research.
  • The Institute for Healthcare Improvement, in Cambridge, Mass., developed the “plan-do-study-act” approach, a cycle of rapid prototyping, testing, and refining of the solution to a problem.
  • The Council of Chief State School Officers’ Innovation Lab Network studies state policies geared toward “deeper learning,” and its associated conference has incorporated sessions on continuous-improvement strategies in recent years.

Coverage of continuous-improvement strategies in education is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Defining Continuous School Improvement

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