Can schools meet the promise of continuous improvement?
New research offers insights on how leaders can actually make continuous improvement work.
By Mark A. Elgart
“Continuous improvement” has been part of the lexicon of school improvement for decades. Today, it is at least nominally at the heart of efforts to improve instruction both big and small: state accountability systems, district and school improvement plans, protocols that guide teachers’ weekly planning — even, at times, daily lessons. So why, then, has such a universally acknowledged practice failed to live up to its promise, especially in the high-poverty schools that need it the most?
The evidence that real progress has eluded us is everywhere. While national measures of student learning have generally inched forward, comparisons to international benchmarks have shown limited growth and, at best, mediocre results. And despite decades of improvement efforts targeted at schools serving students in poverty, ZIP codes remain a strong predictor of student success a half-century after James Coleman’s groundbreaking Equality of Educational Opportunity report was published (Coleman et al., 1966), in large part because school poverty remains a proxy for school quality.
Many reasons exist for these disappointing results: an emphasis on compliance over commitment, the need for annual improvement leading to short-term fixes at the expense of sustainable progress, narrow measures of progress resulting in narrow strategies to improve them, and the challenges of building on gradual improvements over time. The principles of continuous improvement are straightforward, but putting them into practice given these pressures has proven challenging.
At the same time, our work conducting external engagement reviews in more than 34,000 schools and school systems across the country and the globe has shown that continuous improvement systems can improve outcomes — for schools and for students. Our observations of more than 250,000 classrooms in the AdvancED Improvement Network have demonstrated strong relationships between effective continuous improvement practices and high performance. Recent research by our organization (Elgart, 2017) also has yielded new insights on what successful schools do well — and where all schools, even the highest performers, need to improve.
Defining continuous improvement
The general components of a continuous improvement cycle — assess, analyze, adjust, and repeat — are well-known and replicated at different levels of scale throughout the educational system. Yet the principles that drive the mechanisms laid out in such cycles are not always clearly understood or applied. Schools and individuals may go through the motions of each step without understanding the deeper purpose that guides them.
Continuous improvement is grounded in systems thinking from the late 1930s. Many professions, organizations, and industries have adopted the theory as they try to solve problems from a holistic perspective (von Bertalanffy, 1968). Theorists categorize schools and other educational institutions as “living systems,” which means they comprise various interconnected parts both inside and outside of the institutions — classrooms, teachers, students, leaders, and outside stakeholders. An underlying premise of continuous improvement is that an organization’s success is related to its ability to make sense of these interconnected elements. Related practices such as the Total Quality Management theory popularized in business management have reinforced the premise of ongoing self-improvement for both practices and people.
An effective continuous improvement system in a school system emphasizes the learner’s experience, stakeholder engagement, and data collection and analysis to guide and inform both planning and executing a school’s improvement journey. My organization defines continuous improvement as “an embedded behavior within the culture of a school that constantly focuses on the conditions, processes, and practices that will improve teaching and learning” (Elgart, 2017). This holistic and deeply ingrained approach allows leaders at all levels to:
- Identify and focus on what matters most for improvement. School improvement varies by individual school, even among schools with similar performance or demographics. Some issues may require instructional solutions based on best practices, while others may fall more squarely on a leader’s judgement or ability to move the culture.
- Address all the factors that affect performance. Continuous improvement requires examining leadership, resource allocation, teaching and learning, and student engagement and helps school leaders shift the focus from outcomes (such as low test scores or absenteeism) to the multiple factors that contribute to them.
- Provide organizing principles for improving performance. Identifying root causes of issues allows school leaders to identify specific actions to address them — and importantly, prioritize them. Being able to identify which issues have the greatest effect and require the greatest attention allows school leaders to focus on them consistently and not be distracted by less important issues.
- Set clear goals that will engage both school and community stakeholders around a common issue and focus everyone on a common strategy or action to make progress.
- Create a culture of improvement at all institutions, whether they are low performing or excelling. Even the highest-performing schools may have pockets of underserved learners who are hidden by the averages. And many schools have large numbers of students who are performing adequately but could excel.
Taken together, these principles of continuous improvement help ensure that school improvement does not become a check-the-box approach but a strategy that targets specific needs of individual schools. Some schools may struggle with student absenteeism and high teacher turnover; others may have discipline and classroom management issues. Some may struggle with low literacy or numeracy rates or have seemingly intractable culture issues that supersede all other efforts to improve. Undergoing a deep and thorough process to determine the most salient issues for each school allows leaders to identify root causes, educate and engage stakeholders inside and outside the school, and develop a plan that directs the school’s limited resources toward actions most likely to improve overall performance, assess progress, and make midcourse corrections.
Where things go wrong
Still, too many schools and systems embrace continuous improvement efforts that go nowhere but in circles.
Surely one factor has been the compliance approach that has characterized many school improvement efforts. Schools and districts have generated voluminous school improvement plans with long lists of goals, objectives, strategies, and activities that fail to engage staff, students, and stakeholders — or that overwhelm them. A 50-page improvement plan simply cannot be implemented — no school or system has the capacity to take on every issue at once. Requirements to demonstrate evidence of annual progress also encourage schools to shift direction more rapidly than the slow, sustainable process that characterizes many effective continuous improvement efforts.
Because continuous improvement takes time, it does not always seem sufficiently tangible to policy makers. The process can appear soft and disconnected from outcomes. Also, it is hard to do well and cannot be represented in a single test score or school grade. Conversely, legislating school culture is impossible, but continuous improvement practices can improve culture, which is a primary factor driving school improvement.
The principles of continuous improvement are straightforward, but putting them into practice has proven challenging.
And here the changing policy landscape may be fortuitous. The Every Student Succeeds Act offers a real opportunity to move beyond narrow approaches to school improvement focused solely on student test results. The law has introduced an historic shift of accountability power from the federal government to the states. ESSA enables state education leaders to build new accountability and improvement systems that provide schools more flexibility to improve without eliminating ambitious learning goals and thus opportunities for all students.
Some elements of ESSA — such as multiple measures of student learning and school climate and efforts to develop supports and interventions — are likely to improve results. But while final state plans had not all been submitted or approved by the education department at the time of this article, critiques of draft plans filed earlier in the year have frequently centered on the lack of detail as states outlined the accountability and improvement systems they are creating. As each state rolls out and refines its new plans, ensuring that they move beyond the status quo will be important.
At the same time, even when schools and their leaders are committed to move beyond compliance to improvement, they often take an adult-first mentality — centered on what teachers and leaders must do to improve student achievement, as demonstrated by an outcome. In these cases, root causes and the process change required to address them often are overlooked in favor of monitoring the end result — such as fluctuating interim assessments. And while determining whether students are learning is critical, changing that vital outcome is difficult without understanding how they are learning and whether teaching and learning in a classroom, school, or system meets the needs of individual students and engages them in learning.
Finding what works
The characteristics that make schools effective have been a well-visited topic in the research literature for more than a half-century. This body of literature informed our development of the AdvancED School Quality Factors, seven criteria that drive improvement: a clear direction, healthy culture, high expectations, impact of instruction, resource management, efficacy of engagement, and implementation capacity.
With more than 34,000 public and nonpublic institutions in the AdvancED Improvement Network, we observe and analyze at least 5,000 institutions each year. Conducted by highly trained external review teams, these school-based analyses are summarized in our Index of Education Quality™ (IEQ™), which correlates these seven essential factors with overall school quality, as measured by the effect of teaching and learning, leadership capacity, and the resources to support student learning. Data from the ratings of schools that underwent external review for accreditation in the 2015-16 school year and ongoing classroom observations in schools in our network provide insights into how continuous improvement practices can lead to more effective schools. Specifically, we found strong relationships between effective continuous improvement practices and the following characteristics of high-performing schools:
Clear direction. To ensure that all stakeholders embrace continuous improvement efforts, school leaders must communicate the most important steps to promote student success. Among the schools we rated in 2015-16, the lowest-performing (as identified by their overall IEQ scores) demonstrated little agreement among staff that schools are focused on clear goals. Conversely, the highest-performing schools had unusually strong agreement — more than 4.5 on a five-point scale — that student success is a clear priority.
Resource management. All schools face the challenge of limited resources — time, staff, funding, and materials — which requires leaders to allocate them toward specific goals. We found high correlation among three key areas of resource management and school quality: instructional time and resources to support goals and priorities, sufficient resources and materials to meet school needs, and a variety of information resources to support student learning. High- and low-performing schools saw 35% to 41% differences in these measures of resource management in our research.
An environment in which the entire school community — students and adults alike — is actively engaged, feels empowered to effect positive change, and enjoys congenial and supportive relationships is vital for success. Schools that received low ratings in culture had significantly lower measures of overall school performance on the IEQ than those that fostered a healthy school culture (scores of 262 vs. 297 on a 400-point scale, respectively).
Implementation capacity. From goal setting and professional development to curriculum and innovative instructional strategies such as project-based learning, implementation often is what separates successful from unsuccessful schools. Monitoring implementation of such initiatives is a vital part of continuous improvement efforts, and data from teacher surveys administered during the accreditation process found that schools that appear to struggle in this area have substantially lower overall school quality ratings than those where leaders excel in monitoring continuous improvement data (scores of 261 vs. 297 on the IEQ’s 400-point scale, respectively).
Stakeholder engagement. During the 2014-15 school year, high-performing schools (with an IEQ rating of 300 or greater) more frequently received high scores in parent surveys. The majority of highly rated schools excelled in engaging parents and community members in activities such as field trips and career days and in reporting student progress to parents.
Student engagement. Focusing excessively on adult behaviors is a key failing point. Our research also shows a positive relationship between classroom observation that captures learner engagement and overall school quality as measured by the IEQ. A school’s overall rating tended to be higher when it provided more opportunities for students to be owners of their learning, collaborate with other students, and engage in activities that require movement, voice, and thinking.
High expectations. A school’s stated commitment to high expectations for all stakeholders can have a significant effect on its overall performance. AdvancED certifies schools as high performing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills based on indicators that clearly define the qualities and components vital to creating and sustaining superior, student-centered K-12 STEM teaching and learning programs, as well as clear expectations for student outcomes and mastery of 21st-century skills. In a recent evaluation study, we found that students at STEM-network schools were significantly more likely than those at noncertified schools to report an environment of high expectations.
Also, the STEM-certified schools outmatched their noncertified counterparts on indicators of access to technology, student engagement in rigorous coursework, and student collaboration based on classroom observations.
Effect of instruction. Understanding how students learn is as important as knowing whether they learn. Looking beyond assessment outcomes to explore student collaboration and other factors is also important. On average, schools with more student collaboration during instruction time also tended to score in the highest quartiles of overall school quality. During the 2015-16 school year, two-thirds of schools in the top quartile of student collaboration as measured by classroom observations also were in the top quartile of overall IEQ results.
Implications for school leaders
Together, these results help confirm that a commitment to deeper continuous improvement practices contributes to qualities essential to high-performing schools.
Although every school’s improvement journey is different and requires leaders to emphasize different strategies, among the high-performing schools we have visited, there often is a common thread: a culture of continuous learning that permeates all levels and stakeholders. In these schools, that culture is supported by high expectations and accountability. While school leaders must emphasize and embody these values, for schools to be successful, they must be embraced by everyone — teachers, students, and other stakeholders alike. That kind of culture cannot be legislated. It must be developed and nurtured over time.
In successful schools, we have seen leaders work in four major ways to create such an environment:
#1. Culture. Effective leaders shape the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written (and unwritten) rules that influence every aspect of how a school functions.
#2. Talent. Leaders seeking to improve organizational performance focus on attracting, developing, retaining, and putting people with the right skills and aptitudes into the right roles.
#3. Knowledge. Ensuring that all staff has a common understanding of the school’s core goals and expectations results in the consistency needed to improve the learning experience for every student in every school or classroom.
#4. Execution. Successful leaders take purposeful action to directly and intentionally address the key priorities identified through the continuous improvement process.
School leaders also must recognize that even the highest-performing schools struggle in certain — and important — areas. In 2015-16, we found that one out of five high-quality schools had difficulty consistently establishing high expectations for all students. One-quarter of these schools also struggled to create classroom opportunities for students to take risks in learning. And nearly 30% of high-achieving schools had classrooms that, on average, ranked in the bottom half of all classrooms across the network in terms of requiring students to ask and respond to questions requiring higher-order thinking, such as applying, evaluating, and synthesizing information.
Effective continuous improvement requires contributions from all stakeholders in a school, its community, and the broader educational system that supports them.
Meanwhile, observations by trained external review teams as part of the accreditation process revealed that more than one-quarter of high-quality schools had difficulty providing students opportunities to respond to questions about their individual progress or learning. Nearly 30% included classrooms that, on average, struggled with providing students opportunities to review or improve work based on feedback from teachers. The same finding was true when considering whether students were “provided additional/alternative instruction and feedback at the appropriate level of challenge for her/his needs.”
Effective continuous improvement also requires contributions from all stakeholders in a school, its community, and the broader educational system that supports them:
- School leaders must seek and include all stakeholders in identifying key problems and their solutions. Stakeholder involvement is a required part of developing most traditional school improvement plans, but effective continuous improvement requires them to take on additional, ongoing responsibilities once the plan is drafted.
- Educators must take time to understand and embrace their school’s improvement priorities and help monitor progress toward these goals. Teachers have as much a role in monitoring and adjusting their own instructional changes as school leaders do in setting the overall strategic direction and overseeing its implementation.
- Parents and community members also must participate in and support schools on their continuous improvement journeys. Just as root causes and best approaches vary from school to school, each community can bring different resources to the table — from financial or volunteer support to career connections or mentoring.
- Students must become more actively engaged learners and provide feedback on that learning to teachers and leaders. Engaged students and active learning environments are correlated with high-quality schools, and the best way to ensure that instruction meets the needs of every student is to ask them.
- Governing authorities and boards must provide resources and support school leaders as they move away from compliance and checklists. That means continuing not only to hold schools and their leaders accountable to high academic standards but to support them — and, at times, provide political cover — in the face of slow but steady improvement. The emphasis on student growth and broader measures of college- and career-readiness found in many states’ draft ESSA plans may provide promising ways of doing so in next-generation accountability systems, but theywill have tobe supported by state and district leaders.
Continuous improvement is a journey that takes more time and greater effort from a wider range of stakeholders than most school initiatives. When implemented patiently, however, it enables schools to identify and meet all students’ needs — which is the ultimate destination for all of us who have a stake in the future of our schools and our society.
Coleman, J.S., Campbell, E.Q., Hobson, C.J., McPartland, J., Mood, A.M., Weinfeld, F.D., & York, R.L. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: Office of Education, U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Elgart, M. (2017). Meeting the promise of continuous improvement insights from the AdvancED continuous improvement system and observations of effective schools. Alpharetta, GA: Advance Education Inc. www.advanc-ed.org/sites/default/files/CISWhitePaper.pdf
von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General systems theory. New York, NY: George Braziller, Inc.
MARK A. ELGART (firstname.lastname@example.org; @MarkElgart) is president and CEO of AdvancED, Alpharetta, Ga.
Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 54-59. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.