Continuous Improvement in Education: What Is All the Buzz About?

Sheila Rodriguez
Sheila Rodriguez
, an experienced researcher and evaluator, develops tools and provides technical assistance that enable state education agencies, districts, and schools to use data and current research to improve outcomes for students. She specializes in facilitating training for and providing coaching to state and district stakeholders on data-driven continuous improvement strategies, logic modeling, and program evaluation. Currently, she is a researcher for the REL Northeast & Islands at EDC and an evaluator for the EDC-led Home Visiting-Improvement Action Center Team (HV-ImpACT). On October 4, Sheila and Karen Shakman will present a free REL Northeast & Islands webinar, “A Practical Approach to Continuous Improvement in Education.” In this post, Sheila discusses continuous improvement and shares some of her recent work.

Within the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of buzz about the continuous improvement (CI) process, which is not necessarily a new concept—it has been used in the healthcare field for a long time—but is fairly new in the field of education. Continuous improvement in education is a process that people engage in to address a specific problem by using iterative cycles to test changes. The process allows people to define a problem, implement a small change, collect data, analyze and examine the data, determine if the change is an actual improvement, and either scale up the change or try something new/refine their approach based on what was learned from that cycle.   

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) has a lot of great resources (videos, white papers, worksheets etc.) on this process and, over the past six years, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been instrumental in translating the CI process to the field of education. The Foundation provides various workshops on topics related to CI, and their annual summit brings together educators, researchers, policymakers and many others from the education field to share what they have learned. They have also authored a book, “Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better” (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow and LeMaheiu, 2015) which introduces the six core principles of improvement and provides examples and case studies of how the CI process can be utilized in education (you can view a free glossary of key terms from the book on the Foundation’s website). If you are new to CI, I recommend attending the summit because it will give you a good understanding of the process and how it is being implemented in various education contexts. 

Many EDC researchers and technical assistance providers draw upon the CI process in their work, and I am currently working on three EDC projects that focus directly on CI. My work in CI began through the REL Northeast & Islands at EDC (REL-NEI). REL-NEI’s work is carried out primarily through research alliances, which consist of practitioners, policymakers, and others who share an interest in a specific education topic or issue. Some of our alliance members expressed interest in learning more about the CI process, and last fall REL-NEI offered a webinar for these alliances, “A Practical Approach to Continuous Improvement in Education,” that introduced the CI process, focused on the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, discussed data collection methods, shared tools related to CI, and provided examples of how to use the process in various education settings. Led by myself and my colleague Karen Shakman, the webinar proved to be very popular and we will be offering the webinar again on Tuesday, October 4 from 2:00-3:30 ET. Registration is still open, and I hope you’ll be able to join us.   

As an extension to this work, REL-NEI partnered with three districts in the region to build their capacity in CI by providing coaching and support in implementing this process. This work is led by my webinar co-facilitator, Karen Shakman, and Karen wrote a great blog post, “Continuous Improvement Projects Test New Interventions to Tackle District and School Priorities,” which provides an in-depth description of the CI work that has been happening in each of the districts. Working on this project has reinforced for me that the CI process can be implemented in many different education settings, to achieve a wide variety of goals. As Karen notes in her post, the districts used the CI process to: 1) advance an initiative to promote co-teaching between English as a Second Language and general education English language arts teachers; 2) guide the design of a protocol/feedback tool to inform evaluation of educator effectiveness; and 3) support implementation of a strategy to expand teachers' engagement of students in high-level mathematics discourse in classrooms. Regardless of how CI is applied, participants always need to be prepared to spend time to define the problem, plan for data collection and implementation, and carefully study the results to determine whether or not there has been an improvement.

My most recent project related to CI is EDC's Home Visiting-Improvement Action Center Team (HV-ImpACT) led by Joanne Martin. In this initiative, EDC and its partners are providing technical assistance to grantees of the Federal Home Visiting Program. As part of the CQI and evaluation team, I have been working closely with MaryCatherine Arbour, who is a CQI expert, and a research evaluation team consisting of Erin Stafford, Jessica Brett, and Emma McAuley. We are focusing on developing a CQI process for HV-ImpACT, which will be guided by the model for improvement developed by Associates in Process Improvement. In addition to designing the CQI process, the team collaboratively will develop practical measures, design data collection tools, and collect data related to the technical assistance activities provided by HV-ImpACT.  Developing and implementing a continuous quality improvement process will allow the team to test and implement a series of incremental changes to their technical assistance process that will have the potential to improve the effectiveness of HV-ImpACT's technical assistance.

In my work on all of these projects, and as I learn about more CI work underway at EDC, it is exciting to see how we are using the CI process—and building the capacity of others to use the CI process—as a potent strategy to advance EDC’s mission to improve education, health, and economic opportunity. It’s rewarding to see the results from implementing a process that allows you to focus on something small and then expand it as you see improvements, and it makes it an especially interesting time to be engaged in education research. 


Friday, September 30, 2016 - 11:45am