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Striving for Excellence: The Importance of Continuous Improvement in Education

Matthew B. Courtney, Ed.D.  |  June 2024  |  5 Minute Read

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Continuous improvement in education is a critical process that helps to ensure that students receive the highest quality education possible. This approach involves evaluating and refining teaching methods, curricula, and learning environments on an ongoing basis to identify areas that need improvement and make adjustments to enhance student learning outcomes. Continuous improvement isn’t just for “low-performing” schools – its for everyone – and this post will cover the basics of continuous improvement processes in education.

At its core, continuous improvement is about constantly striving for excellence. It involves a process of setting goals, measuring progress, and making adjustments as needed to ensure that those goals are achieved. This approach is particularly important in education, where the stakes are high and the impact on students can be profound.

The Evidence Base for Continuous Improvement

 

Continuous improvement systems in schools have been supported by a robust evidence base highlighting their effectiveness in enhancing educational outcomes. These systems emphasize a cyclical process of setting goals, implementing strategies, evaluating outcomes, and making data-driven adjustments. Research has shown that schools adopting continuous improvement frameworks, such as the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, experience significant gains in student performance and organizational efficiency (Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2017). Additionally, Bryk et al. (2015) discusses how schools implementing continuous improvement processes showed marked improvements in teacher collaboration and instructional practices .

Moreover, continuous improvement systems foster a culture of ongoing learning and adaptation among educators and administrators, which is crucial for addressing the diverse needs of students. A literature review by Park, Hironaka, Carver, and Nordstrum (2013) highlighted that schools practicing continuous improvement were better equipped to identify and close achievement gaps, leading to more equitable educational outcomes. Furthermore, LeMahieu, Bryk, Grunow, and Gomez (2017) emphasized that the iterative nature of continuous improvement allows for rapid testing and refinement of educational interventions, ensuring that effective strategies are scaled up and less effective ones are quickly modified or discarded. Overall, the evidence supports the deployment of continuous improvement systems in schools as a means to foster academic excellence and equity.

 

​Myths About Continuous Improvement in Schools

 

School improvement is for all schools! I believe that every child deserves a school where the culture is welcoming, instruction is rigorous, achievement is high, and opportunities abound. Systemic and intentional school improvement is how we make good schools great and great schools even better. When schools focus on continuous improvement processes, they help all students succeed. School improvement prevents stagnation, encourages innovation, and shows kids that their school means business.

 

School Improvement Punishes Teachers

 

This one hurts me. Teachers in “improvement schools” are often looked down upon. The public assumes that they don’t know how to do their jobs and that if they were better, they would go teach at a better school. That really isn’t how the teacher talent pipeline works. In fact, many highly skilled teachers choose to teach in lower performing schools or in schools with populations that are more likely to be lower performing due to persistent societal barriers. These are some of the best and most innovative teachers you will ever see. They are incredibly adaptive as they focus on meeting the unique needs of their diverse student populations.

 

School improvement processes actually promote teacher excellence. A quality improvement process includes robust stakeholder inputs that give teachers greater voice and agency in their schools. A quality improvement process includes intentional, timely, and relevant professional learning chosen in collaboration with teachers. A quality improvement process includes distributed leadership where teachers in a school building are encouraged to take on leadership roles, perform action research, model techniques to their peers, and represent the school in the community. Great teachers thrive in a continuous improvement system that values them.

 

School Improvement is Temporary

 

Because of its inclusion in federal law, many people think of school improvement as a temporary endeavor. They see the application of a federal improvement designation, the rapid and short term work performed by the school while they are under that designation, and the eventual exit from the designation and assume that that is all there is to it.

 

In reality, school improvement is an ongoing, long-term project. Quality school improvement processes build replicable and self-sustaining systems that ensure that schools continually improve forever. Continuous improvement is continuous. Even if a school begins an improvement process as the result of a federal designation, the work they perform as they try to exit the status becomes an integral part of how they do business. That is how they stay out of the status in the future. Many “improvement schools” go on to eventually become some of the highest performing schools in their states. The reason is that they understand that the work of school improvement is an ongoing endeavor and they don’t stop when the feds turn their heads.

 

School Improvement Doesn’t Work

 

This is the most prevalent myth I hear. Many people think that school improvement or continuous improvement processes don’t actually work. There is a persistent idea in the world that low performing schools will be low performing forever and that there isn’t much you can do about it. I chock that up to two issues. First, I think it is a research fluency issue. I think that many people don’t fully understand the nuances of small scale studies that suggest that various strategies or components don’t always work in specific settings. I also think that societal pressures and systemic barriers create a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in many parts of our country. When societal barriers are holding you down, school improvement processes may feel fruitless.

 

The truth of the matter is that school improvement and continuous improvement systems are very successful. They have been shown time and time again to lead to lasting change in student and school performance. School improvement processes are incremental and systematic, which can sometimes feel like improvement isn’t happening, but with persistence and fidelity, the work of school improvement will lead to lasting positive change.

 

Tools for Monitoring System Health

 

The backbone of any continuous improvement journey is system analysis. All the planning in the world will not lead to improvement without a careful evaluation of your systems. As a continuous improvement leader in your school, you must take time to examine the current state of your systems before you begin to plan your improvement journey. Here are some great tools to help you as you ponder the various structures within your systems. You can download templates for each of these tools here.

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The Fishbone Diagram

 

A fishbone diagram is an analysis tool that helps you understand the cause and effect structure that is supporting a persistent problem of practice. The fishbone diagram is a single-use analytic tool that is best deployed by your improvement team during your continuous improvement planning processes.

 

Using the fishbone diagram is simple. First, you identify the problem of practice you want to focus on. Then, you consider the six key components of a problem: methods, machines, people, materials, measurements, and environments. Within each of the six elements you will consider the barriers to successful implementation. Through this process, you will begin to see various trends and patterns that you can design your improvement process around.

 

The Plus Delta

 

The plus/delta is a simple, yet powerful tool to quickly and unemotionally solicit feedback from stakeholders. The concept is simple. At the end of an event, meeting, training, or forum, ask participants to give you “pluses” (things they liked) and “deltas” (things that they think you should change). This process is deceptively simple. In the end, you will have two lists that your continuous improvement team can review. The items on your plus list are good to go and you should take steps to ensure that those items continue to be featured in the future. The items on your delta list become your continuous improvement priorities. Focus on how you can bring positive change to your event by improving the areas identified by your crowd.

 

SWOT Analysis

 

The SWOT analysis is a time tested analysis tool that helps you gain a deeper understanding of your organizations positioning. It forces you to consider the impact of positive and negative factors from both within and outside your organization. SWOT stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats”. Strengths and weaknesses are internal facing while opportunities and threats consider external factors.

 

SWOT analysis works best with a team. Here’s how I like to do it. I give everyone four colors of sticky notes. I assign each color to one of the four SWOT elements. I like to give my improvement team some time to reflect on how they view the current state of the organization and I ask them to record one item at a time on their sticky notes. We post them on the wall and take some time reviewing and discussing each sticky note as a team. In the end, we usually come to a strong consensus about the state of the organization.

 

Root Cause Analysis

 

Root cause analysis, sometimes called the five-whys strategy, is a process designed to help you understand the true cause of a problem of practice. If you don’t understand the real problem, you cannot begin to devise a real solution!

 

This one is super simple. You begin by posing your problem as a “why” question. With your improvement team, answer that question. Then, turn the answer to your question into another “why” question. This goes on and on (at least five times) until you get to the real root of your issue. Here is an example.

  1. Why doesn’t anybody ever show up to our family night events? Because families don’t want to come to the school.

  2. Why don’t families want to come to the school? Because it can be difficult to get away from other responsibilities.

  3. Why is it difficult to get away from other responsibilities? Because families lack appropriate childcare for their children.

  4. Why do families lack appropriate childcare for their children? Because it is too expensive for families in our communities.

  5. Why is it too expensive for families in our community to afford childcare? Because our community is historically underserved and there are no childcare options available within a short commute.

 

Possible solution: We find a way to offer childcare at school during school-sponsored events.

 

See how easy?

  

Tools for Monitoring Improvement Efforts

 

It can feel overwhelming when you have a big problem to tackle and no idea where to start. Believe me, I’ve been there. There are any number of gurus who will sell you “quick fixes” or condescendingly say that you simply need to improve core instruction and all of your problems will go away –as if its that easy. Sustainable school improvement requires careful planning and consistent evaluation. Without the tools to complete these two tasks, you will be working blind. You wouldn’t wander into a dark forest without a map, you shouldn’t wander into a continuous improvement meeting without one either. In this post, I want to share five of my favorite continuous improvement planning tools.

 

30-60-90 Day Planning

 

30-60-90 day planning is my go-to tool when I need to launch a new project. You know the phrase you eat an elephant one bite at a time? Well, 30-60-90 day planning is how you eat an elephant! The planning tasks are simple. Take a big project and decide what you can do in the next thirty days to work towards that goal. Then project out, what will you do in the next 60 days? 90 days? 120 days? Get the picture?

 

PDSA Cycles

 

PDSA stands for plan-do-study-act and is a cyclical planning process that is great when you are operating in maintenance mode. I know what you’re thinking: But Matthew, how can we have maintenance mode if we are focused on continuous improvement? With PDSA Cycles of course! Here’s how it goes. First, you think through your immediate improvement plans for whatever process you’re maintaining. Next, you implement your plan – documenting those implementation steps for future reference. During the study phase, review the effectiveness of your previous implementation. Finally, you act upon the outcomes of your review to determine which incremental changes need to be made next. Then, you do it all over again!

 

Kanban Chart

 

Kanban charts come to us from the Kanban Method of workflow management. A Kanban chart is a great tool when you have to monitor multiple moving pieces through established phases – like a sales pipeline. Its simple enough. You have a column for each phase of your process and you move you pieces back and forth among the columns so that everyone knows which phase each piece currently sits.

In conclusion, continuous improvement is a critical process for ensuring that students receive a high-quality education that prepares them for success in the future. By constantly evaluating and refining teaching methods, curricula, and learning environments, educators can provide students with the most effective education possible, while also fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration among educators. While implementing a continuous improvement approach can be challenging, the benefits are clear, and the potential impact on students is profound.

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