6 Essential Elements of Improvement

By Catherine Rauseo

There’s no shortage of innovative ideas in our education system. When it comes to the success of our students, everyone from educators to state policy makers is working tirelessly on new ways to improve our schools. But why do some new ideas stick and others don’t? Too often, well-intended policies unravel as they hit the ground.

We want to change that. We know making large-scale improvements that are effective and sustainable is hard. It requires a thoughtful and structured process. Through our work with the Massachusetts Teaching & Learning Network, we developed a step-by-step process for participants to manage improvement efforts. Now we want to share that with all educators looking to make changes in their schools or districts. Our Change Management Framework lays out six essential elements of improvement, each of which has a coaching tool to help teams navigate the process.

The first step in any improvement effort is identifying the problem. We aren’t advocating for innovation just for innovation’s sake. Change should be a reaction to a specific and actionable problem. Identifying a Problem of Practice must be a team effort that includes the perspective of those who will implement the changes—often teachers—and are best equipped to identify the issues at the root of the challenge. Before deciding how to fix a problem, your team needs to understand the underlying causes and have a clear sense of the need for change.

New Bedford Public Schools, for example, saw that their 3rd grade students were not meeting state standards in English Language Arts. When they started looking for the underlying causes, they found that 26 percent of their students were going into kindergarten without any preschool or formal child care and those in preschool were only receiving 66 days of learning time a year. Understanding the needs of their students, many of whom are living in poverty, the team realized that part of addressing the gap in 3rd grade reading is addressing the gap in early education.

Once you’ve identified a problem of practice, your team must set goals. What do you want the impact of this change to be? Establishing Projected Outcomes is essential in determining the type of intervention you want to make. Your team needs to develop and define quantifiable outcomes that can measure progress toward your goal.

New Bedford wanted increase to 3rd grade reading level to align with their goal of advancing achievement for all students. On the path to reaching that goal, they set actionable and attainable benchmarks. One key milestone became increasing early education instruction.

Once you know where you want to go, you need to decide how to get there. What interventions will allow your team to reach your established goals? To Detail the Nature of your Intervention your team must look at best practices to design strategies that gradually build solutions to your identified problem.

To address the success of its 3rd graders, New Bedford looked toward data and best practices. A proven method to improve outcomes for students in 3rd grade is increasing instruction time in early education. So, one part of New Bedford’s accelerated improvement plan became switching from half-day to full-day pre-kindergarten in two of their neediest schools.

This whole process cannot happen without Building a Trusted and Committed Team. It is crucial that your team includes members with a diversity of perspectives, especially those who will be implementing the changes. Sustaining a team’s commitment and trust requires constant attention to norms of behavior, roles and responsibilities, and buy-in.

A key part of the strategy in New Bedford was to not only provide access to early education, but also to ensure equity among programs. That meant bringing public and private pre-k providers into the project to ensure alignment. The team also incorporated the voices district leadership, teachers, community partners, and families.

No improvement process is possible without the proper infrastructure. To Establish Effective Operations teams must ensure they have the funding, staff time, and resources to complete their project.

To secure the necessary resources, New Bedford teamed up with community partners whose goals aligned with the district’s improvement plan. They were also able to leverage grant funding from the state around increasing access to early education.

The key to our Change Management Framework is treating improvement as an iterative process. Each step we’ve described should be revisited and tweaked as the process unfolds. Teams must Support Systematic and Continuous Learning Cycles by repeatedly testing interventions and scaling what works while adjusting what doesn’t. This means constantly reviewing progress toward intermediary benchmarks and regularly analyzing data to identify what aspects of your plan to modify. Improvement efforts are never-ending.

The team in New Bedford selected two of its neediest schools to test how full-day pre-k—among other strategies—will impact 3rd grade reading scores. While it’s too early in their improvement process to know the impact on 3rd graders, New Bedford does know it is making progress toward an intermediate goal: school readiness. Monitoring this and other benchmarks toward their larger goal will help the team adjust their process and tweak their interventions. With each changing intervention, the outcomes, team, and infrastructure will need to be adjusted. The district recognizes that no one intervention will lead to positive outcomes for all students and are implementing a series of strategies centered on social-emotional learning.

The team continues to iterate and work toward scaling successful programs. This point is critical to understanding effective change management. It isn’t about getting things right the first time, but rather establishing a sustained process for analyzing results, making adjustments, and trying again when you come up short.

This thoughtful and iterative process is what is missing in many education reform strategies. Too often we implement new ideas but move on to the next thing before finding out if the strategy works or if it needs to be adjusted. Other times we wait too long to measure the effectiveness of a new program, instead of checking on progress using interim benchmarks.

Some schools and districts, like New Bedford, have found ways to navigate the improvement process effectively. But it’s not an easy task to replicate. Through our research, our work with districts, and our studies of the principles of improvement science, we’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work when it comes to managing change. That knowledge has guided the creation of this six-part recipe for improvement. We hope our expertise can benefit those looking to make improvements in their districts, schools, or networks. If you’re interested in working with the Rennie Center to support an ongoing improvement process, our specialists can help teams utilize tools, collect data, build capacity to analyze the information and devise course corrections, and disseminate and scale findings. Please contact Director of Implementation Juanita Zerda to learn more.