The term continuous improvement has been part of the lexicon of school improvement for decades. From state accountability systems and district and school improvement plans to teacher and classroom protocols, continuous improvement practices have been replicated at different levels of scale throughout our educational system. Yet all evidence suggests that this universally recognized practice has failed to fulfill its promise. That is particularly true in high-poverty schools, where the ZIP code remains as strong a predictor of student success as it was a half century ago, before school improvement gained prominence.
This whitepaper examines some of the reasons why, despite the common use of continuous improvement language and practices, school and system efforts often fall short. It then describes the key components of successful continuous improvement implementation in a school setting and introduces the AdvancED® Continuous Improvement System, including its research-based elements and processes. And, as described in the summary of findings below, it shows how AdvancED’s work conducting external engagement reviews and observations of more than 250,000 classrooms demonstrates strong relationships between effective continuous improvement practices and high performance.
Summary of Findings
AdvancED provides improvement and accreditation services to more than 34,000 schools and school systems across the United States and in 70 countries. As such, it is required to observe and analyze at least 5,000 institutions each year. Conducted by highly trained external engagement review teams, these school-based analyses are summarized in our Index of Education Quality® (IEQ®). The IEQ correlates AdvancED’s seven essential School Quality Factors with overall school quality by measuring the impact of teaching and learning, leadership capacity, and the use of resources to support student learning.
Data compiled from the ratings of schools that underwent these accreditation reviews in the 2015-16 school year— and from ongoing classroom observations in schools in the AdvancED network— provide important insights into how continuous improvement practices can lead to more effective schools. The following findings show how continuous improvement correlates to the AdvancED School Quality Factors in high-performing schools:
- Clear direction. Engaging all stakeholders in common goals is a hallmark of effective continuous improvement. Among the schools rated by AdvancED in 2015-16, the lowest-performing (as identified by their overall IEQ scores) demonstrated little agreement among faculty and staff members that schools are focused on student success. Conversely, the highest-performing schools had unusually strong agreement— more than 4.5 on a 5-point scale—that student success was a clear priority.
- Resource management. AdvancED found high correlation between school quality and three key areas of resource management and school quality: (1) sufficient instructional time and resources to support goals and priorities, (2) sufficient resources and materials to meet school needs and (3) availability of a variety of information resources to support student learning. High- and low-performing schools saw differences of 35 to 41 percentage points in these measures of resource management in our research.
- Healthy culture. An environment in which all members of the school community—students and adults alike—are actively engaged, feel empowered to effect positive change, and enjoy congenial and supportive relationships is vital for success. Schools that received low “culture” ratings had significantly lower measures of overall school performance on the IEQ than those that fostered a healthy culture (scores of 262 vs. 297 on a 400-point scale).
- Implementation capacity. Monitoring implementation is a vital part of continuous improvement efforts. Data from faculty surveys administered as part of the accreditation process found that schools that appear to struggle in this area had substantially lower overall school quality ratings than those where leaders excelled in monitoring continuous improvement data (scores of 261 vs. 297, respectively).
- Efficacy of engagement. Effective continuous improvement efforts engage stakeholders both inside and outside of the building, including parents and other community members. During the 2014-15 school year, high-performing schools (with an IEQ rating of 300 or greater) more frequently received high scores in parent surveys of opportunities for parental engagement. The majority of highly rated schools also excelled in engaging parents and other stakeholders in activities such as field trips and career days and in reporting student progress to parents.
- Student engagement. Focusing excessively on adult behaviors has often helped undermine traditional continuous improvement efforts. AdvancED data show a positive relationship between vibrant learner engagement (as gauged by classroom observation) and overall school quality as measured by the IEQ. The more opportunities students have to be owners of their learning, collaborate with other students, and participate in activities that require movement, voice, and high-order thought, the higher the school’s overall rating tended to be.
- High expectations. The belief that all learners have the potential to achieve is a key factor in driving success and can have a significant impact on overall school performance. AdvancED certifies schools that meet high standards for STEM education based on indicators that are somewhat different from AdvancED’s regular accreditation standards. This group of schools allows for additional investigation about how continuous improvement leads to high performance. When comparing student perceptions of high expectations among AdvancED’s network of STEM Certified schools and the non-STEM schools in our network, we found the STEM Certified schools ranked significantly higher in setting an environment of high expectations (3.1 vs. 2.7 on a 4-point classroom observation scale). The STEM Certified schools also significantly outmatched their non-STEM counterparts in other areas measured by AdvancED’s classroom observation tool, including indicators of access to technology, student engagement in rigorous coursework and student collaboration.
- Impact of instruction. On average, schools that exhibited higher levels of student collaboration during instructional time tended to score in the highest quartiles of overall school quality. During the 2015-2016 school year, two-thirds of schools in the top quartile of student collaboration as measured by classroom observations also were in the top quartile of overall IEQ results.
Room for Improvement
Even the highest-performing schools struggle in certain— and important— areas. Among our 2015-16 IEQ results:
- One out of five high-quality schools had difficulty consistently establishing high expectations for all students.
- One-quarter of these schools also struggled to create classroom opportunities for students to take risks in learning.
- Nearly 30 percent of high-achieving schools had classrooms that, on average, ranked in the bottom half of all classrooms across the network in terms of requiring students to ask and respond to questions requiring higher-order thinking, such as applying, evaluating and synthesizing information.
- More than one-quarter of high-quality schools had difficulty providing students with opportunities to respond to questions about their individual progress or learning.
- Nearly 30 percent of high-achieving schools included classrooms that, on average, struggled with providing students opportunities to review or improve work based on feedback from teachers. The same was true when considering whether students were “provided additional/ alternative instruction and feedback at the appropriate level of challenge for her/his needs.”
This paper outlines the history of continuous improvement as a discipline, the core principles of the underlying theory, challenges schools face in implementing it, and the elements of an effective continuous improvement system. Most notably, it identifies the correlations between key principles and high-performing schools, and where schools fall short. The document includes a detailed description of each AdvancED School Quality Factor and the supporting research, the components of the AdvancED Continuous Improvement System, and recommendations for administrators, teachers, parents, students, governing authorities and other policymakers to make effective continuous improvement a reality.
While continuous improvement practices have been replicated at different levels of scale throughout our educational system, for the most part, documentable large-scale improvement has been elusive. Though achievement in the United States on standardized tests and other measures has risen for a number of years, the 2015 results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed a decline in average math scores for the first time since 1990. And, when compared to other countries through cross national tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the United States has shown, at best, mediocre results.
In the United States, ZIP codes, family and community resources, English language proficiency, and race and ethnicity all play a role in learners’ chances of having successful educational experiences that prepare them for the future. In their article in the February 2016 issue of The Atlantic (The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools), reporters Janie Boschma and Ron Brownstein draw attention to an in-depth study of testing results in all 12,000 of the nation’s school districts. In that study, Stanford University professor Sean Reardon found that “ … school poverty turns out to be a good proxy for the quality of a school.”
The article notes that “the cumulative effect of these disadvantages has proven overwhelming almost everywhere … And while they have not finished sorting all of the data, the preliminary results underscore how difficult it is for schools alone to overcome the interlocking challenges created by the economic segregation of low-income students.”
Little has changed, then, since 1966, when the then United States Office of Education published Equality of Educational Opportunity (Coleman et al.), concluding that family background, not school, was the determining factor that predicted student achievement. Coleman and other social scientists from the 1960s to the 1970s believed that poverty and parents’ lack of education prevented children from learning, no matter the quality of instruction they received.
We reject this reasoning today, believing instead that high quality instruction can fundamentally affect all learners’ future success in important ways. But we also know that spending inordinate amounts of time developing a voluminous school improvement plan often yields no improvement. These compliance-centered activities are characterized by checklists and assurances as well as long lists of goals, objectives, strategies and activities. Even beyond such plans, most institutions also engage in some iteration of an improvement process for the purpose of increasing student achievement. They modify curricula and apply new instructional strategies to meet criteria established by analysis of limited data. However, they often are not able to identify or address the issues underlying their struggles.
Most educational institutions approach improvement from a compliance perspective or an adult-centric perspective. That is, strategies center on what teachers and leaders must “do.” Unfortunately, according to many scholars, compliance-based efforts generate results at the end of the improvement cycle (typically a school year) that usually are not sustainable the subsequent year; moreover, those results fall short of the potential impact of a continuous improvement approach (Derrick-Mills, 2015). This happens repeatedly in countless schools with well-written improvement plans for two reasons. First, the focus is specific targets, not the needs of the individual learners. Second, educational institutions emphasize the end result, not the process.
Continuous improvement in itself has been around for decades. Missing has been an appreciation of the value of understanding the needs of individual students and committing to improving the educational experience for everyone.
We have worked side by side with thousands of schools during their continuous improvement journeys, observed students in over 250,000 classrooms, and reviewed thousands of improvement plans. We have seen firsthand that schools prioritizing “learners first” and embracing the improvement process as continual can make a lasting difference in the lives of their students.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for school improvement. Our research offers insights on what successful schools do well— and where all schools, even the highest-performing ones, can improve.