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Innovate, Iterate, Improve: Lessons From Three Education Systems

By Christina Russell — March 12, 2019 7 min read
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Editor’s Note: Three cities in Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network—Denver, Colorado; Hangzhou, China; and Hiroshima, Japan—used improvement-science methodologies to design and test new strategies for developing youths’ 21st-century competencies. Here, Christina Russell from Policy Studies Associates, serving as a consultant to Asia Society, summarizes lessons learned from the two-year process. Read the full report here.

Adopting continuous improvement strategies—including the use of rapid cycle testing of innovative strategies to iterate and refine before systemwide implementation—is a priority for many districts and schools. But what do these improvement efforts look like in practice? And what approaches help ensure buy-in and learning that can lead to scalable and sustainable changes?

Since 2016, teams from the Denver public schools in Colorado; the Bureau of Education in Hangzhou, China; and the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education in Japan have been using improvement science principles to test new strategies for developing 21st-century competencies in students, as part of a working group convened and supported by the Center for Global Education (CGE) at the Asia Society.

CGE offered a learning network, accountability, and structure for a shared improvement process as teams grappled with questions reflecting their local priorities:


  • Denver: How can school-centered design approaches—with tailored supports from the district office—lead to improvements in interpersonal skills to ensure that students have full potential for classroom engagement?

  • Hangzhou: How do course-selection decisions in high school open—or limit—future choices within the educational system, and how can students make the best decisions that will lead to personal fulfillment as they pursue that pathway?

  • Hiroshima: What skills and mindsets do students need to engage with and succeed in a competency-based education system? What supports do teachers need to foster new instructional strategies promoting competency-based learning?

A July 2018 blog described the strategies that these three systems were exploring and refining to develop these important competencies in youths. Here, we summarize four lessons from their continuous improvement journeys for leaders in other districts taking on systemwide reform.

Lesson 1: Ground Efforts in Systemwide Priorities—But Start Small

Innovation should be grounded in the current priorities of the education system. Each of the three systems embedded their improvement work in overarching policy directives, shifting specific interventions as needed to both maintain commitment and pursue learning goals.

In Hangzhou and Hiroshima, work was driven by national shifts in policy related to coursework and instructional approaches—a reform of the college-entrance examination in China and a policy shift toward competency-based education in Japan. In Denver, the team was committed to the whole-child focus of the Denver Plan 2020—the district’s strategic plan—as well as to shifting the role of the district office to support school-based improvement efforts and implementing a board policy directive to reduce out-of-school suspensions.

Although each team addressed systemwide goals, starting small—by piloting new approaches in one or two schools or classrooms, and by iterating on specific and targeted ideas for change—proved most effective. Improvement efforts take time as strategies are tested, but leaders often feel pressure to implement reforms and changes systemwide. By design, continuous improvement is an ongoing process that may have some early successes or failures, as new ideas are developed, implemented, and tested, often within a rapidly changing education context.

Whereas the Hiroshima and Hangzhou teams took this small-scale approach from the start, the Denver team shifted approaches when it struggled to engage principals and teachers and manage a learning process throughout the entire district. With guidance from CGE, Denver narrowed the focus to working more closely with just two schools to help teachers develop new approaches for productively managing classrooms and student behaviors to increase engagement and, ultimately, reduce suspensions. The team expected that once the approaches were tested and refined at these two schools, emerging promising practices could then be tested in new schools for continued refinement before spreading across the entire district.

Lesson 2: Engage Teachers in the Improvement Process

Change efforts have the most traction when teacher-informed and teacher-driven. System leaders initiated the work and created a process for supporting innovation and learning, but the ideas for change were most effective when they originated with teachers. Working with a small number of teachers, and helping them reflect on the impact of new practices, can encourage other teachers to seek out and be motivated to engage in improvement efforts.

For example, in Hiroshima, teachers’ reflections helped to unpack and begin to address concerns related to implementing competency-based instruction. While teacher buy-in for competency-based education was increasing, reflections highlighted that they needed additional professional development to support successful implementation of this new approach. In Hangzhou, teachers in pilot schools—with support from the local research team—generated new strategies to guide students through the course-selection process.

In Denver, learning deepened when leaders brought improvement science methods directly to two schools, acknowledging that the educators in those schools are “experts” in understanding the specific challenges and generating ideas.

Engaging teachers in the improvement process helped them develop new instructional practices to foster the targeted student competencies. The teams realized that it was important to first support teachers in developing the instructional capacity to foster these competencies in students, before expecting changes to occur.

Lesson 3: Distinguish Data for Improvement From Data for Accountability

Data for improvement relies on measures that can provide feedback on the effectiveness of change ideas in a timely manner. Systems are inclined to use formal system measures that might highlight a systemwide challenge to assess the success of tested strategies. For example, leaders in Denver wanted to know whether interventions reduced out-of-school suspension rates. However, those measures are not always easily accessible or reported regularly enough to provide rapid feedback.

While these formal measures are helpful to identify a problem and to periodically assess progress, they often lag too much to be effective for assessing a new strategy. Less formal measures can often provide more responsive feedback without burdening administrators, teachers, or students.

For example, Denver gathered reports from teachers on the perceived effectiveness of new instructional and disciplinary approaches and used those reports as guidance for changes in support or training offered. The Hangzhou team relied on teacher observations of student engagement in peer-learning sessions and on feedback from participating students to determine success of the tested strategies.

Lesson 4: Establish an Infrastructure for the Improvement Process

Ensuring that staffing and resources for improvement efforts are grounded in system infrastructure is essential. Designing and refining new strategies for supporting students takes time and effort and requires new roles and responsibilities both for system leaders and for school-based teams.

If systems change strategies and responsibilities are held only by a limited number of leaders, changes in staffing structures can significantly affect the pace of change and innovation. Changeover in staff at the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education meant that original team members who had been trained in improvement science were no longer present, and it became difficult to sustain the effort.

Structures are needed to sustain improvement efforts. For example, the Hangzhou team recruited new school-based teams to identify, design, and implement improvement projects, and trained them in the methods of improvement science.

Additionally, school-based educators need to feel comfortable sharing both what worked and what did not. The Denver team found that assigning a manager who had strong relationships with the focus schools could increase buy-in, and the manager could be seen as a learning partner rather than an accountability monitor.

The work is not yet done in Denver, Hangzhou, or Hiroshima. System change takes time, and continuous improvement, by its nature, is an ongoing learning process. But the shared experiences of these three systems can inform future efforts for testing and refining innovative practices to support students and teachers.

Follow Christina, Policy Studies Associates, Heather, and the Center for Global Educationon Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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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