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Aurora Institute

Continuous Improvement and Innovation

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Rethink Instruction

Illuminated light bulb in a row of dim ones concept for creativiThis post first appeared on CompetencyWorks on December 20, 2016. 

This is the twenty-fourth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

It is no surprise that Chugach School District received the Malcom Baldridge National Quality Award in its seventh year after creating a performance-based system. Competency education creates the conditions for continuous improvement and mutual accountability in managing school operations. When the only data is attendance and A-F grading scales, districts do not have access to data that allows them to track student progress in learning. With the rich data produced in competency education, schools can drive towards what Marzano Research refers as “high reliability” schools — schools that are able to continue to reflect upon their own performance and adjust to better meet the needs of students.

There is a tremendous shift for leaders to move from compliance to continuous improvement. Compliance has an inherent element of fulfilling specific requirements where continuous improvement reaches for the stars. Oliver Grenham explained that at Adams 50, they discovered there was no middle ground. They were “all-in or nothing” because the shift to competency education requires a totally different paradigm. He compared it to that visual game in which you can see an old woman or you can see a young woman, but you can’t see both at the same time. For district and school leaders, this means having to learn about continuous improvement management techniques early in the transition, even before the data may be fully available. There is simply no way to revert back to compliance management strategies after a second order change. The culture of learning expands to become a culture of continuous improvement with a focus on results.

Continuous improvement in this context is a formal methodology or a system to improve performance through reflecting upon data, engaging stakeholders in discussions about variation or low performance, planning for targeted improvements, and then repeating the cycle. Many districts use an easy to use process of Plan-Check- Act-Do to manage improvements. There are other techniques, as well, such as implementing quality controls or benchmarking against other organizations to seek out and adopt best practices.

At times, continuous improvement activities may be an internal process with educators fine-tuning the operations and practices within a school. For example, at Sanborn Regional High School, the ninth grade is organized into five academies, each with a team of teachers. The teachers, working as a PLC, use data to help students boost their skills, develop habits of learning, and successfully transition into high school. However, if the focus of the continuous improvement process has wider implications, a broader set of perspectives including students and community members will be brought into the process. Larger issues and more inclusive processes will of course affect the timeline. Over time, management teams will build the capacity to develop insightful management and exception reports that allow them to monitor performance (quality) and seek improvements to better serve targeted populations as students and as system-wide breakthrough innovations.

Something to Think About: As districts build the capacity for continuous improvement, they find they need a more agile organizational capacity — they need an adaptive district. They may start by thinking about the organization differently by placing students at the top of the organizational chart rather than the superintendent or school board. Then they will begin, as Pittsfield School District and Chugach School District have done, to develop a flatter district organizational structure. Job descriptions are revisited, success measures put into place, and structures established to emphasize the knowledge, skills, and talents the adults need to succeed. 


New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) has embraced continuous improvement driven by a focus on student-centered learning. Already offering highly individualized, open-entry, competency-based online courses and competency recovery, VLACS began to seek ways to create greater personalization in which students could have more opportunity for learning experiences based on their interests and wider selection in how they learned and demonstrated their learning. VLACS is creating a variety of options for students to learn through projects and through experiences such as internships and college courses. Thus, students will have the opportunity to co-design their learning to a much higher degree as they select the mix of instructional approaches that are right for them.

There are many areas of continuous improvement with districts and schools selecting a few areas to work on at a time. Many find that they need to improve their assessment literacy introducing and calibrating performance-based assessment. Others may focus more on building instructional skills such as learning progressions or more inquiry-based or problem-based learning.

Revisiting Shared Vision And Instructional Model

Districts can keep the shared vision alive by periodically revisiting it in partnership with their communities. This provides an opportunity for district and school leadership to engage new members of the community in the vision, continue to address the concerns of skeptics, and, if the demographics of the community are changing, revise the vision to encompass their vision for their children.

Similarly, engaging educators in revising the instructional model periodically is important. Rick Schreiber from the Reinventing Schools Coalition advises districts to strive to develop regular cycles for making adjustments. This allows schools to collect input over time and to consider that input and the reasoning behind the suggestions in a cohesive process.

Schools will vary in how much time they need to become comfortable with the new instructional design and when they are ready to begin a revision process. Depending on the rollout strategy used within a school, principals and district leaders will need to determine when is the best time to engage in revision based on the progress of their schools.

As teachers revisit the instructional model, it is likely that they will want to touch on the overall pedagogical approach, as well. Their understanding of motivating students and instruction and assessment will be growing, and they will likely want to enhance the description of the school’s approach as well as the I&A model. For example, after a few years of implementation, Chugach began to monitor the instructional approach that students were using to learn. Based on a belief that it is important for students to have varied learning experiences (including direct instruction, interdisciplinary units, performance tasks, and independent learning), the schools and district staff use their AIMS web-based information management system to ensure that students are receiving a balanced approach to learning.

In Pittsfield, teachers have engaged in rich conversation about the implications of student voice and choice within the learning process. Former Dean of Instruction Sue Graham explained that as teachers unpack the standards and competencies to identify the enduring questions, they begin to ask, “What are the different ways students can get to those competencies?” She pointed out that the depth of knowledge teachers have in their content area makes a difference. The more knowledgeable teachers are of the discipline and the competencies, the more comfortable they are in offering flexibility to their students. Increasingly, teachers are starting to understand that if they don’t know where students struggle and where the misconceptions are occurring, they are limited in how they can help students overcome them.

Other areas where districts are strengthening their approach include investing in knowledge on learning progressions, building systems of performance-based assessments that lift the level of knowledge to ensure students are able to apply skills, and developing a cohesive approach to helping students build habits of learning.

In the next set of articles, two other areas of continuous improvement will be explored: 1) improving performance and personalization through powerful data and 2) addressing the needs of struggling students.

For more information, explore this whole blog series: