Continuous improvement: What it takes and where it’s working

As local educational agencies throughout California strive to boost student outcomes by way of continuous improvement strategies, a new research analysis of the state’s eight CORE districts explores which conditions best support that continuous improvement in districts and schools. The findings also indicate that many educational leaders may not be as successful in implementing the approach as they believe.

Through its research partnership with CORE Districts — a nonprofit collaborative of eight urban school districts formed in 2010 — Policy Analysis for California Education this month released and presented a report, Learning and Practicing Continuous Improvement: Lessons from the CORE Districts. In addition to the report, PACE also published three case studies, examining successful efforts in Long Beach Unified School District, Garden Grove USD and Fresno USD’s Ayer Elementary School.

CORE comprises districts in Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Ana. The partnership has both its own accountability system and a data collaborative that includes nearly half of the public school students in the state (districts that are not part of CORE can still be a part of the data system). Beyond the traditional indicators on the California School Dashboard, the CORE system includes measures for student academic growth, social/emotional learning, school culture and climate, and high school readiness.

At a PACE report launch event in Sacramento on Oct. 4, lead project researcher Alix Gallagher explained that successful continuous improvement strategies should permeate an entire district or school’s culture and leadership. “What it should not be is a separate initiative,” she said. The concept is foundationally about systems and thinking changes, rather than individuals adopting quickly learned tools and producing outcomes. “That’s not knowledge that can be transmitted in a workshop,” Gallagher added.

Where districts and schools were succeeding in continuously improving student outcomes, PACE found:

  • An overall focus on supporting teachers to learn effective instructional practices
  • Coherence, created by a stable focus and multi-directional communication
  • A culture tolerant of failure that produced learning
  • Use of data to set big goals and monitor progress toward those goals
  • Districts and schools use continuous improvement as an approach to their ongoing work instead of as a separate reform initiative

Gallagher and CORE Districts Executive Director Rick Miller said schools and districts identified as success stories are student-focused and consistent in their efforts — while still not being afraid to acknowledge failures and regroup. But these LEAs also don’t change their focus with new programs all the time, overwhelming staff and teachers with a barrage of top-down trainings, policy directives and curricula. “As people are trying to spread this right now in California, chances are what they’re doing is insufficient,” Gallagher said of continuous improvement.

A key piece in the equation is coaching, both for administrators and teachers, which Gallagher and Miller both admitted requires more time and money that most California districts and schools have.

The pair cited the paramount need for LEAs to provide teachers and other staff members with the appropriate time and data to improve and implement new curriculum and initiatives, so that they are slowly and deeply learning methods of continuous improvement rather than experiencing whiplash. “Teachers outside this state tend to have more prep time,” Gallagher said of her research. To that point, Gallagher and Miller said district and school leaders should go above and beyond in seeking paths toward professional development.

To target those goals, CORE district educators can take on a range of roles in continuous improvement, the most common of which are participating on a continuous improvement team, facilitating a team, or supporting others to learn or practice continuous improvement. CORE also hosted programs in 2017–18 and 2018–19 designed to support people in various roles in learning how to best support improvement in their organizations.

In closing, Miller said the often slow-burning nature of true continuous improvement doesn’t always align or connect with leaders and administrators who had the concept of quick fixes and punitive accountability drilled into their heads during the era of No Child Left Behind. “We have years and years of work to do in rethinking our systems,” Miller said.

Further reading on best practices and systems change: