In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Continuous Improvement and "High Leverage" Educational Problems

  • Introduction
  • General Overview of Continuous Improvement Approaches
  • Instructional Leadership and Collaboration
  • School Turnaround
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Professional Development
  • Use of Data

Education Continuous Improvement and "High Leverage" Educational Problems
Brittany Closson-Pitts, Elizabeth Gilliam, Stacey Rutledge, Marisa Cannata
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0236


Efforts to achieve integrity in the implementation of educational reforms and policies has long been considered a challenge in large part due to a failure to account for local context. In their efforts to achieve fidelity with policy and program goals, policymakers and implementers often neglect to account for the particularities of their organization and environment. A current approach, aimed at adaptation to local context in implementation, comes from improvement science and its practice of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is a reform strategy in which implementers engage in an intentional and deliberate process of goal setting, enactment, and analysis that, in turn, informs the next cycle of implementation and improvement. Through this structured adaptation, implementers tailor policy and program goals with local conditions and constraints. Furthermore, while educational practitioners have been at the forefront of continuous improvement efforts and its emergence within the field for some time, only recently have researchers begun turning to the approach to implement high-leverage educational problems. “High leverage” refers to educational approaches that have been found in the field to have an impact on student academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes or teacher activities. These are approaches in which there is broad consensus that, if implemented with integrity, there is a high likelihood that they will lead to high-quality, positive change. This article reviews empirical research that studied the implementation of high-leverage practices using continuous improvement strategies and identified seven high-leverage strategies on which there are studies of their implementation using a continuous improvement approach. Each section provides research that establishes the high-leverage practice, as well as improvement research on the high-leverage practice. The six topics are instructional leadership and collaboration, school turnaround, social-emotional learning, professional development, and use of data.

General Overview of Continuous Improvement Approaches

When district administrators, school leaders, or teachers in classrooms use continuous improvement strategies, they are acknowledging that educational practices are consistently evolving. School stakeholders have a number of continuous improvement strategies that they draw from when implementing educational practices. In this review of the implementation of high-leverage practices that have been implemented with continuous improvement approaches, six approaches are identified: lesson study, plan-do-study-act (PDSA), design-based thinking (DBT), peer reflection, and networked improvement communities (NICs). Fernandez and Yoshida 2004 describes lesson study as a targeted form of continuous improvement in which teachers focus on a specific lesson and share their process of improvement with their colleagues and students. According to Tichnor-Wagner, et al. 2017, plan-do-study-act (PDSA) is an approach where implementers identify their plan, carry it out, use data to study the outcomes of their plan, act on their findings, and then start the process anew. In design-based thinking, implementers engage in iterative cycles in which they participate in a process of problem identification, theory building, research, and responding to results. This approach is detailed further in Mintrop 2016. Proger, et al. 2017 describes NICs as a research-practice partnership where researchers and school districts work together to identify problems and engage in systematic and collaborative research to test approaches to these problems. Through NICs and peer reflection, Hannan, et al. 2015 asserts that teachers work in networks of peers to engage in a process of self-reflection and peer support. In addition to the strategies themselves, studies find that there are factors that either facilitate or impede the success of continuous improvement strategies in educational contexts, thus affecting the quality of implementation of the high- leverage practice. Anderson and Kumari 2009 identifies eight characteristics schools need to create a culture of productive continuous improvement. These include sufficient access to external resources; sustainable leadership; clear expectations regarding the roles and responsibilities of participants; professional development initiatives; actionable goals; effective organization; and consistent opportunities for review, reflection, and revision. Edgecombe, et al. 2013 finds that small-scale changes (as opposed to school-wide improvement initiatives), a lack of organizational support structures, and inadequate chances for self-reflection and revision negatively influenced the integrity of school-based continuous improvement efforts.

  • Anderson, Stephen, and Roshni Kumari. 2009. Continuous improvement in schools: Understanding the practice. International Journal of Educational Development 29 (January): 281–292.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ijedudev.2008.02.006

    By focusing on the practices of a single secondary school in Pakistan and their ten-year improvement-based partnership with a university, the article explored school-wide efforts for continuous improvement and synthesized eight propositions regarding the process of creating a school culture of continuous improvement. These included sustainable leadership and role distribution; school engagement with external resources; a clear vision for improvement; professional development opportunities; organizational cohesion; and continuous reflection and revision.

  • Edgecombe, Nikki, Maria Scott Cormier, Susan Bickerstaff, and Melissa Barragan. 2013. Strengthening developmental education reforms: Evidence on implementation efforts from the scaling innovation project. Community College Research Center, Columbia University Teachers’ College. CCRC working paper no. 6: 1–48.

    The Community College Research Center’s Scaling Innovation project examined sixty-six strategies for instructional development across eleven colleges to create an introductory framework for successful school turnaround initiatives. Their results suggested that that the implementation of instructional development strategies may be hindered by a lack of self-reflection and revision by school personnel, a tendency for schools to adopt small-scale innovations which demand little change, and limited structures to support effective management.

  • Fernandez, Clea, and Makoto Yoshida. 2004. Lesson study: A Japanese approach to improving mathematics teaching and learning. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.

    Provides a comprehensive description and examples of lesson study at a public primary school in Hiroshima, Japan, providing a digestible framework for teachers in the United States to adapt and apply these ideas to their own respective school contexts. The goal of this work was to demonstrate a lived example of lesson study in practice, consequently prompting educators to locate professional development and continuous improvement opportunities within their own teaching through collaborative feedback and instructional experimentation.

  • Hannan, Maggie, Jennifer Lin Russell, Sola Takahashi, and Sandra Park. 2015. Using improvement science to better support beginning teachers: The case of the building a teaching effectiveness network. Journal of Teacher Education 66.5: 494–508.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022487115602126

    Novice teachers are often given the most challenging teaching assignments with the least amount of support, many times leaving them isolated. In a study examining the Building a Teaching Effectiveness Network (BTEN) at ten urban high schools, Hannan and colleagues found that the development of a procedure for standard feedback strengthened relationships between teachers and leadership and assisted in building a foundation for the utility of improvement science in educational settings.

  • Mintrop, R. 2016. Design-based school improvement: A practical guide for education leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

    It described the elements necessary for design-based school improvement. The process has several steps including identifying a problem of practice, defining this problem of practice, making theories of action, conducting a needs assessment, consulting the professional knowledge base, and developing an understanding of the change process. Once these steps have been taken, implementers design, implement, and evaluate the intervention. At least two cycles are needed to fully implement the model.

  • Proger, Amy, Monica Bhatt, Victoria Cirks, and Deb Gurke. 2017. Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest: 1–14.

    Proger and colleagues presented a case study of two improvement science–based initiatives in Minnesota and Michigan that sought to address issues of poor student achievement through the establishment of networked improvement communities (or NICs). Found that NICs that had clear and concise expectations, utilized members’ prior knowledge and diverse expertise, and emphasized capacity building and actionable goals were the most successful in reaching their intended outcomes.

  • Tichnor-Wagner, Ariel, John Wachen, Marisa Cannata, and Lora Cohen-Vogel. 2017. Continuous improvement in the public school context: Understanding how educators respond to plan-do-study-act cycles. Journal of Educational Change 4:465–494.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10833-017-9301-4

    Centered on the implementation of plan-do-study-act cycles (or PDSA) in two urban school districts, the article explores the perceptions and practices of design-team members (including administrators, practitioners, and district personnel) during their first year of PDSA implementation. Findings reveal that while participants largely perceived PDSA cycles as a valuable idea with the potential for improving student outcomes, organizational constraints and a lack of eagerness among members limited its application.

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