Continuous Improvement is Back


November 7, 2017


Do you remember puffy shoulder pads, ripped jeans and high-tops from the ’80s?

They’re back!

Just as fashion is cyclical, trends in education reform return. In their new iteration, however, they morph based on the current environment and recent history.

For example, today, we are transitioning out of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era of high-stakes accountability and saying hello again to continuous improvement—but with a twist. The new-look continuous improvement sports a few nifty enhancements inspired by lessons learned in the push to “turn around” schools in recent years.

As the field shifts from a punitive environment to one that honors educator professionalism, as well as local differences and perspectives, here are some strategies that we are happy to see going strong:

Rapid improvement cycles. Unlike the early Comprehensive School Reform program days, there are no yearlong planning efforts this time. Instead, today’s continuous improvement approaches embrace the “get-to-it-ness” of short-cycle improvement that became prominent in turnaround approaches.

With this strategy, schools identify manageable changes, quickly move to action, use clear measures to check on progress along the way, and learn and adjust as they go.

And unlike turnaround models that prescribed numerous required actions, today’s continuous improvement recognizes that context-specific approaches are key. Put another way, it isn’t “one size fits all”; it’s planning action on a few locally relevant and tested change efforts designed to make steady progress toward improving student outcomes.

Partnerships. Historically, large-scale school improvement efforts have yielded mixed results. In part, this is because it can be difficult for schools to dramatically improve on their own—external partners are key.

We’ve seen a recent surge in the ways schools engage with partners, including:

  • Improvement networks (schools working together to improve, typically with support from a coordinating organization and other partners)
  • Research-practice partnerships (schools and districts working with research institutions to collaboratively set and carry out a research agenda to support local improvement efforts)
  • Design-based implementation research initiatives (researchers working with schools to iteratively design and test scalable policies and programs)

Data use. NCLB changed the ways schools and districts use data and evidence to inform improvement efforts. Today, schools have access to robust datasets, and each year, better data tools become available. Thus, the focus has shifted from access to effective use of data.

Data use practices are also evolving. For example, instead of using data to bump achievement levels for “bubble kids,” we are now seeing data practices focused more on achieving equitable outcomes for all students.

Educator-centered reform. The high-stakes accountability of the NCLB era made many teachers feel beat up, unappreciated and overwhelmed. Plus, the focus on educator evaluation tended to overshadow a critical part of improvement: educator engagement and growth.

But there are signs of a brighter, more productive climate ahead as districts and state education agencies, now faced with teacher shortages, are increasingly focused on investing in educator learning, development and retention.

Today’s continuous improvement approaches prioritize educators collaboratively studying and improving classroom practice while strengthening conditions in the overall school environment. These approaches also provide an opportunity to refocus on the original intent of the educator evaluation movement─to provide teachers and principals with meaningful, differentiated professional support and growth opportunities that enable them to grab the reform reins.

Along with pegged jeans, ruffles and big hoop earrings, I say bring on the next generation of continuous improvement—but just like those giant, teased bangs from the ’80s, let’s leave the rigidity of one-size-fits-all and highly punitive approaches to school improvement in the past.

Learn more about Education Northwest's innovative work in school improvement.