Why Continuous Improvement could be ground breaking in the development of education

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"The key to change is the commitment to learning how to do things better". Susanna Loeb, David Plank

Superintendent Patricia Greco of the School District of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin claimed that "Education as a profession is attempting to jump from initiative to initiative rather than trying to imbed principles of improvement into the system."

In a world where change, innovation and process excellence have become convention; why is education - the root of our development - still sluggishly slacking behind?

A lean approach to education

Although the term "continuous improvement" has become a popular buzzword in and around education in recent years, the implementation of continuous improvement on a large scale does not seem to be taking place. Where this has been actioned however, it has shown and proven to produce exceptional results. The transition of certain continuous improvement models into curriculums could be groundbreaking in the development of the education system and could transform how we see it today.

The business based methodology that originated from Japan’s economic success in the 1950s focuses on the frequent collection of data to create incessant progress for the development of organizations. An early pioneer in the fifties, Edward Deming stated that "improving quality would reduce expenses while increasing productivity and market share".The method is largely process based and although it produces results, it has no fixed endpoint, hence the approach being termed "continuous".

In education, continuous improvement has been implemented at three main levels. These being: the classroom level, which promotes data informed decision making in the classroom; system-wide level that implements broader infrastructural improvements from the top to support classroom activity (i.e. monetary investments in teacher training); and finally the collective impact level, the broadest of the three that incorporates a long term commitment from a group of actors from external sectors with a common agenda for solving specific issues. These have been used in a number of educational arenas such as the school district of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, Montgomery, Maryland County public schools and the StriveTogether organisation.

This business and industry based methodology has been seen to have taken educational districts in the United States by storm. "We are bridging the application of the (continuous improvement) tools into education". Superintendent Patricia Greco has pioneered educational institutions in Wisconsin into a transition to classroom and system-wide level based instructional improvement. Greco and her team have worked closely with continuous improvement practitioner Jim Shipley and associates to establish a sustainable, focused mission to revise their educational system.

Greco made a decision that it was necessary to "stop the quick fixes" in exchange for a more stable but continually progressing system. In an interview concerning the transition she stated that "people are getting the fact that continuous improvement is improvement that is never ending". She further stated that within this methodology the schools have taken on a PDSA (plan, do, study, act) cyclical approach that was in effect and influenced by the healthcare system.

SDMF’s achievements so far include: results being six or more per cent above the Wisconsin state average, a decrease of 84% of days lost due to suspension from 2011 to 2014,over 98% high school graduation rates and an overall significant growth presented in results in comparison to previous years prior to the method’s implementation. To attain these, the district has introduced mission statements and learning requirements which are put up in every classroom from elementary through to high school, learning goals which include percentages of achievement based on their previous results and ability, and the collaboration of teachers and students to evaluate These methods combined enable an efficient and continually progressing process to operate, that informs and involves all the people within it.

Patricia acknowledged that the district’s schools model could be transferred onto other districts but they must be willing to work whilst trying to shift the system at the same time.

Whilst there has been proven success with the application of business methodologies in education on the classroom and system level, one organization, StriveTogether has solely focused on community level. Based in Cincinnati, the Strive network has expanded to over 80 communities across the country.

Strive’s key objective is to unify programs and support each child’s development into adulthood and maintain that support into their career; they call this the ‘Cradle-to-Career’ vision. This unified program relies on continuous improvements’ number one must have – a common and consistent vision and set of measures. By doing this, it has allowed smaller sub-networks to work together with the broader network to indicate particular issues or stages along the educational field. Strive uses data (a business methodology) to recognize which aspects are proving successful, where to go from there and which areas need improvement.

The challenges that students face are often left at the feet of the school districts and therefore children’s personalities, such as their social and leadership skills are failing to mature because there is currently no space in education for these aspects to be taught. StriveTogether recognized this and looked towards the community to find solutions. Strive have set up initiative programs and targets to make sure children are reaching their objectives and monitor their progress to create the data. Strive prides itself on its ability to recognize where things go wrong and figure out the process at where it failed or succeeded and where to go from there. This therefore eliminates the ‘blame-game’.

Colin Groth, the strategic director of StriveTogether explained his involvement in the organization and how he feels it has helped to develop well-rounded, successful students. His passion for child education began when he saw the work Strive was doing locally and the impact that it had. Originally he was part of one of the first networks around youth employment – this is where Strive produces apprenticeships and work placements for students and arranges for a wide range of transportation methods to ensure they can get to work efficiently.

"Nothing in the work is a model; communities have to use the process of continuous improvement to use their own data to identify what is working for them and in their community."

The biggest challenge that Strive faced during the transition was the language and translation. StriveTogether was constructed by many different partners from different backgrounds of knowledge and careers. In the business world, there are much more defined data tests and formal authority within systems.Therefore, in the educational system they had to bring together all of these community partners who collected data in different ways and in different systems. Because of this, establishing operational definitions that business leaders, non-profit leaders, university and educational leaders could understand proved challenging to gain mutual understanding.

However, with these translational challenges now dealt with, Colin Groth and StriveTogether are most proud of these partnerships which have been made as they are now representing over three million students. Whether in business, healthcare or education, Strive have exemplified how working together and sharing the same goals proves successful.

"Communities are thinking differently about the way they share accountabilities for the success of every single student and I feel that, that is a really strong legacy." – Colin Groth

Dan Morris, a business consultant and author is a skeptic of Continuous Improvement in both business and education, but is a supporter only if it is executed correctly.

He believes that small changes don’t always coincide and drawbacks can occur when associates don’t always consult each other. He is aware that change can cause disruption and uncertainty within any organization or company. Morris has illuminated that often the biggest misinterpretation of continuous improvement lies within "narrowly focused changes". This means that these projects usually provide immediate results or benefits rather than long term improvements. Morris refers to this as the ripple effect and says that during a chaotic change environment; "Localized improvements can deliver results that conflict with one another in a workflow or process".

Whilst disruption and unsettling environments can cause negative side effects, the attitude of participators can become lax and careless as they could use an excuse of "can always improve" and therefore duties are accomplished ‘half-heartedly’. Members can also become confused as to whether they are using the newest method of process if changes are being frequently made. However, the biggest disadvantage for education in comparison to business is that data cannot be obtained frequently or quickly enough to make vital effectual changes.

"This imbalance can eventually seriously impair operational effectiveness and efficiency, and compliance with regulation."

Morris recognizes that any operation will have some elasticity and be able to absorb a certain amount of change, but this elasticity requires creativity and flexibility of staff in adjusting to these changes; some people will accept, some will reject and some will fight or try to sabotage and some will simply just ignore. Therefore communication and a shared set of goals are vital in making changes and transitions to make sure everyone is on equivalence with the transformation. Most people dislike being evaluated and often a set of changes require this course of action and consequently people will resist corporation. When people have been successful they are not too enthusiastic with moving away from their comfort zones.

In addition to this, Morris also highlighted the natural degradation of process and the importance of controlling change. If change and improvement is unplanned and focus is solely on a specific issue, effects can disperse to broader aspects in unthought-of of ways. Morris refers to this as the ripple effect – ‘The ripple impact of change needs to be controlled’ – the first step is to include ripple evaluation in all projects.

Dan Morris’ answer to these concerns is not to dismiss continuous improvement, but in fact be aware of how to approach it and always be cognizant of all outcomes so one is never left in a state of uncertainty. Often people feel threated by change and approach it with failure – instead participants should acquire StriveTogether’s attitude and methodology of making sure everyone is comfortable with a mutual understanding and recognition of the goals set in place and how to implement them.

"People are the key to implementation and should be included in the design of any actions that are built to help eliminate this cumulative impact from the ripple effect of small changes."

Although there is little evidence of the true impact of continuous improvement in education, the benefits most definitely outweigh the weaknesses. The opportunities for children to mature, develop and grow into successful adults become far more tangible. Working relationships between students and teachers continue to strengthen due to the implementation of assessing progress through data. Most importantly, due to the goal orientated visions and planning, more efficient and focused learning is accomplished.