Why a Continuous Improvement Mindset Is Critical in Today’s Schools

Posted by Paul HesserO

October 2, 2018

Adopting a continuous improvement mindset enables districts to affect positive long-term change.

Perseverance plays a key role in overcoming obstacles and achieving ambitious goals. But when it comes to some of life’s biggest challenges, it’s only natural to look for a “silver bullet” or quick fix. This is especially true when school districts are contending with demanding federal standards, steep funding cuts, and insufficient progress-tracking mechanisms — all of which make long-term improvement all the more challenging. It can be tempting to look for a miracle solution to overcome these obstacles, but as you have probably seen this leads to unbalanced quick fixes more frequently than sustainable school improvement plans.

However, I have noticed a growing trend amongst educators: continuous improvement. Most of the educators I speak with know this methodical and sustained approach is critical to long-term improved student achievement. And now technology and legislation have finally caught up enough to help enable it from individual teacher to state-level administration.

ESSA: Laying the Legislative Groundwork for Continuous Improvement

ESSA has brought nationwide attention to what many educators have known for a long time: fostering well-rounded continuous improvement produces better outcomes than teaching to the test and focusing exclusively on standardized assessment scores.

The idea of continuous improvement can be found in numerous critical passages in ESSA’s text, including the law’s definition of “adequate yearly progress” and its description of support programs for teachers and other school leaders. ESSA’s hallmark flexibility enables schools to approach continuous improvement in ways that are well-suited to their unique circumstances, inspiring buy-in from a wide range of educational stakeholders.

With this foundation laid, two of the most interesting and promising trends I have seen to successfully set-up continuous improvement are feedback loops and leveraging technology for goal setting and tracking.

Constructing a Feedback Loop

While continuous improvement initiatives can take any number of shapes, almost all of them share a set of core characteristics. Most importantly, continuous school improvement relies on the establishment of a sustained “feedback loop” to guide goal setting, opportunity spotting, and progress evaluation.

Without this kind of feedback loop in place, administrative stakeholders might identify a problem in their school, design an intervention to solve the problem, roll the intervention out, and then later work to assess whether it was effective. This assessment would likely be based on big picture, long-term metrics like standardized test scores or teacher retention rates. If these metrics improved, the intervention might be implemented in other schools across the district or state; if they didn’t, the intervention would likely be abandoned.

All-in-all not a bad process for school improvement. But this type of approach overlooks much of the complexity of the educational landscape, a complexity that continuous improvement frameworks are designed to accommodate. A school’s subpar performance is not an isolated incident, but merely a single data point in both the school’s longitudinal context and the district’s (and state’s and country’s) vertical context.

So when I hear from schools accounting for these overlapping contexts, I get very excited about the future of education and the students that can benefit from continuous improvement.  These school districts are testing — and retesting — assumptions about the broader systemic issues that are at the root of a student’s or classroom’s or school’s performance. This involves consistent communication between the stakeholders who are impacted most directly by improvement initiatives, namely, teachers and students.

This continuous process of intervention design, implementation, feedback, and redesign facilitates long-term improvement because it addresses the deep-seated problems that short-lived interventions do not. As Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, superintendent Patricia Greco highlights, “We’re not about chasing random attempts to improve a particular thing. We are building a culture where everyone is thinking of how they can improve.”

Leveraging Technology: Wisconsin’s Commitment to Continuous Improvement

Educators have long understood the efficacy of a continuous improvement mindset within school districts. Today, they finally have the technology tools they need to achieve it. In 2012, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction partnered with us to launch the Wisconsin Information System for Education (WISEDash), a comprehensive data dashboard designed to help educators access critical information in close to real time.

“The ultimate goal is for our educators and administrators to be actively analyzing, interpreting, and connecting students’ school performance data to shape effective strategies for school improvement,” says Mary Ann Hudziak, an employee of one of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Educational Service Agencies. This system allows district and school leadership to set school improvement goals, but also review how they are tracking to these goals continuously.

This active, ongoing engagement with student data is the crux of continuous improvement. Achieving better educational outcomes — whether at the student level, the school level, the district level, or the state level — is an incredibly involved process, one that demands a long-term, all-in commitment. But as any educator can tell you: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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