Learning to Improve

brykEvery school has a desire to improve. We all know, however, that a desire to become better is not enough. (Think new year’s resolutions!) School improvement requires stamina, determination and discipline on part of the school leader and school community. Even with this drive, improvement can frustrate a school, or any organization, without the proper mindset supported by the appropriate tools.

This frustration can be especially pronounced in our schools which are small organizations with fledgling systems dealing with complex operational needs. Our academic teams are responsible for intentional student growth and achievement outcomes and our development teams are charged with significant advancement goals.   In order to thrive, the full leadership team in a maturing school takes the time (time that likely is not readily available) to be strategic and purposeful in getting better.

In early December, I had the opportunity to participate in a training focused on leading school improvement. The training, facilitated by the Carnegie Foundation, was based on the research and framework in the book Learning to Improve which was authored by Tony Bryk whose research Catholic Schools and the Common Good in the 1990s sparked a call to revive Catholic education.

The Carnegie Foundation approaches improvement as a science that can be studied so as to better understand how an organization can achieve the desired impact. There are three questions that guide improvement science:

  • What is the specific problem I am now trying to solve?
  • What change might I introduce and why?
  • How will I know whether the change is actually an improvement?

Over the next few weeks I will share six Core Principles of Improvement that are aligned with these questions, starting with Make the Work Problem Specific and User Centered, and some applications for schools in the NativityMiguel Coalition.

Make the Work Problem Specific and User Centered

Before we can get better at what we do, we need to identify the problem. While engaged school leaders typically have a solid pulse on the school and know generally the problems facing the school, improvement requires a more thorough understanding of a specific problem.

For example, a school may know that a majority of its students in the terminal grade do not demonstrate grade level competency in reading and writing. The school, therefore, makes a case that it needs to get better at literacy. Before rushing into a new, school-wide literacy initiative or implementing a whole-scale curriculum change, however, a school takes the time to know more. What are the breakdowns, gaps and limitations? Does the root of the problem exist in people, tools, resources, or systems?

To arrive at this understanding school leaders go to the source for data. Studying the source includes spending time with the users, the persons who are most engaged with operational or instructional design problem that has been identified. Users may be your faculty and staff, parents and families, the GSP team, board members, donors, volunteers, partners, etc. In order to make the work problem specific and user centered school leaders are observing, surveying, and interviewing these stakeholders to learn more specifically what we are trying to improve.

Observation: To better contextualize how the persons, systems, tools and resources related to the problem are interconnected or fragmented, school leaders observe the work on several occasions. For example, returning to the literacy issue, what can we learn from documenting literacy practices, language, interactions, curriculum and assessments in our classrooms? Are there variances in reading instruction in the 5th grade in comparison to the 8th grade? Or in Section 1 compared to Section 2? Or in the girls class compared to the boys class?

Surveys: If there is a critical enough mass, survey your users if even with a brief set of carefully crafted questions. What can you find out by surveying a number of parents about reading habits at home? What can you find out by surveying students about what they enjoy about reading at school? It is also important to think of your graduates as users – what can you learn about your middle school reading program by surveying graduates and their 9th grade teachers as to how well they did in transitioning to the reading demands of high school?

Interviews: While surveys efficiently gather input from more people, it is also important to sit with and interview a number of users to dig deeper and hear about personal experiences or ideas

Data Collection: Finally, consider what other data is needed to shed light on your problem? This may include data from standardized assessments or demographic data.

All of this data will help narrow your problem and connect it to the experience of your users, many of who will be integral to and invested in your improvement. You may find out that it is a very specific skill that is not being taught or a certain grade level that requires an overhaul or a particular teacher that needs additional training. You may find out that what you thought was the issue is really not the problem at all, or that what you thought was a major problem requires only slight adjustment.  The specific problem should be defined and articulated in a concise statement.

Improvement that starts with incremental change (the inch or 1% as opposed to the foot or 100%) is more manageable and effective than tackling wide-scale, sweeping changes from the onset. “We need to get better at teaching inferences” or “We need to get better at increasing an appreciation of reading” is much different than “We need to get better at literacy.” With patience and perseverance over several years, chunking improvement on specific problems will lead to larger scale improvement.

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