In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Organizing for Continuous Improvement in Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Understanding Social Organization in Educational Improvement
  • Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs)
  • Research Alliances
  • Networked Improvement Communities (NICs)
  • Design-Based Research (DBR) Collaborations
  • Intra-Agency Restructuring for Improvement
  • Schools as Improvement Organizations
  • Leading Improvement Organizations in Education

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Education Organizing for Continuous Improvement in Education
Lora Cohen-Vogel, Christopher Harrison, Megan Rauch Griffard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0229


In education, the organization of continuous improvement refers to the structure of social relations between subgroups and institutions working to integrate quality improvement into the daily lives of individuals within the PreK-16 education system. On its own, the term social organization generally refers to patterns of relationships both among and between individuals and groups that persist over time, are interrelated, and affect the operations of the entity as well as the actions of its individual members. In a broad sense, organizations engaged in continuous improvement draw from two theories of organizational learning: Englebart’s stratified model of organizational improvement and Argyris’s single- and double-loop learning. These organizations engage in improvement work with regularity, infusing it into the day-to-day activities of members, and situating problems of practice as the naturally occurring outputs of a system as its currently designed. This article provides an overview of the research on the social organization of continuous improvement in education, highlighting selections that inform how the structures through which people interact enhance or inhibit organizational learning. Organized into nine sections, the article begins with a general overview with key selections from organizational studies and closely related fields that inform today’s understanding of improvement-focused organizations. The second section covers early, seminal texts that apply ideas about organizational learning to educational systems. Next are sections related to the organizational forms in which improvement work in education is occurring: research-practice partnerships; research alliances; networked improvement communities; designed-based research collaboratives; interagency restructuring; and individual schools as improvement organizations. The final section focuses on what’s known about how to lead organizations engaged in continuous improvement. The citations, though not exhaustive, provide a comprehensive overview of the topic and provide an entry point for those looking build or study improvement-focused organizations in education. Citations have been included because of their significance in the field and the lessons they hold for their readers.

General Overview

In this section, we identify selections that provide a foundation for understanding the role of organization in structuring the work of improvement. First, several readings—Argyris 1976, Meyer and Rowan 1977, Orton and Weick 1990, Sabatier 1986, and Scott 1998—provide a framework for understanding the role that organization plays in the complex work of decision making and management. Next, Berwick 1996 and Deming 1986 focus on the role that organizational theory plays in guiding the work of continuous improvement within complex systems, in particular. Finally, Engelbart 1992; Langley, et al. 2009; and Nielsen 2011 ground their work in practical examples of the use of improvement science methods and networked improvement structures to craft organizational systems capable of continuous improvement over time.

  • Argyris, C. 1976. Single-loop and double-loop models in research on decision making. Administrative Science Quarterly 21.3:363–375.

    Foundational article on how decision-making occurs within an organization. Proposes using two new models (single-loop and double-loop) for decision-making within organizations. Defines these models and their short- and long-term impacts on organizations. Emphasizes that loop models allow organization members to analyze every particular action and underlying assumption to help implement effective policies and decisions.

  • Berwick, Donald M. 1996. A primer on leading the improvement of systems. British Medical Journal 312.7031: 619–622.

    Important healthcare article argues that systems-level changes are necessary for improvements because every current system is designed to achieve the results it currently achieves. Describes how systems-level changes can become improvements by making efforts that are small, continuous, measurable, and studied for effectiveness.

  • Deming, W. E. 1986. Out of the crisis. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Influential text on management suggests that organizations in the United States should radically shift their focus and practices toward innovation and improving quality. Doing so will increase consumer satisfaction, productivity, and the number of available jobs. Lays out fourteen points for applying this theory. Primarily focused on business management but its improvement approach is eventually applied in the education sector.

  • Engelbart, D. C. 1992. Toward high-performance organizations: A strategic role for groupware. San Jose, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.

    Prominent organization theory text introduces concept of “Groupware,” a method of creating highly effective organizations. Such organizations focus on applying methods of continuous improvement, and the variations of which are described. Also emphasizes the cross-sharing of knowledge, technology, and methods across and within organizations as a means of fostering organizational performance and community.

  • Langley, G. J., R. D. Moen, K. M. Nolan, T. W. Nolan, C. L. Norman, and P. L. Provost. 2009. The improvement guide: A practical approach to enhancing organizational performance. 2d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    A user-friendly book introduces readers to continuous improvement in organizations, differentiating between making changes and making changes that are improvements. Provides an improvement framework and tools with which groups within and across organizations can work to accelerate change.

  • Meyer, J. W., and B. Rowan. 1977. Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology 83.2: 340–363.

    Journal article introduces the concept of decoupling. Decoupling is the act of separating formal procedures from actual practice within an organization. Provides examples of this in practice. Explains how decoupling is borne out of rational institutionalized myths (rules, expectations, and pressures) organizations choose to adopt to gain legitimacy. Describes how organizations can operate efficiently with these competing features.

  • Nielsen, M. 2011. Reinventing discovery: The new era of networked science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Book describes how recent developments in technology are revolutionizing knowledge creation. Provides examples of how scientists are leveraging social networks and online communities to solve complex problems. Calls for scientific ideas to be shared publicly rather than within closed communities, as this change has the potential to accelerate the pace of discovery. Emphases on collective impact and idea sharing underscore arguments for the use of improvement science tools and research-practice partnerships in educational settings.

  • Orton, J. D., and K. E. Weick. 1990. Loosely coupled systems: A reconceptualization. Academy of Management Review 15.2: 203–223.

    Article organizes the wide-ranging findings on loose coupling, a way in which the elements within an organization interact. Redirects research on loose coupling away from interpretations that establish loose coupling as the endpoint of a scale between tightly and loosely coupled organizations. Interprets loose coupling as a distinct organizational form with its own complex properties, rather than as the absence of tightly coupled organizational properties.

  • Sabatier, P. A. 1986. Top-down and bottom-up approaches to implementation research: A critical analysis and suggested synthesis. Journal of Public Policy 6.1:21–48.

    An early article sheds light on the critical role social arrangements play in the implementation of change. Argues that implementation in complex systems would improve if both top-down (change coming from leadership) and bottom-up (grassroots change) approaches were employed. Compares and contrasts top-down and bottom-up policy implementation through a comprehensive literature review. Proposes a synthesis approach that utilizes the best features of each.

  • Scott, W. R. 1998. Organizations: Rational, natural and open systems. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Sociological work provides an overview of organizational studies that draws on theories and research from several disciplines. Explains three ways to understand organizations as rational (the organization’s stated goals), natural (its actual goals), and open (its exposure to outside, environmental influences), and discusses implications as they relate to the managers of an organization, the organization as a whole, and society.

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