School improvement is always the goal, but it often falls short--here's how a concept called "continuous improvement" might lead to success

3 pathways for continuous school improvement

School improvement is always the goal, but it often falls short--here's how a concept called "continuous improvement" might lead to success

School principals and district superintendents have a wealth of school improvement options at their fingertips, but many of these solutions fizzle out as they run into conflicts across the school system.

But the goal remains: School leaders must work to improve their schools and their districts in the form of better test scores, higher graduation rates, new innovative programs, state-of-the-art technology initiatives, and more.

As Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, outlines in a new report, some school systems have turned to a strategy called “continuous improvement,” which looks at the systemic causes of problems, identifies potential solutions, and refines those solutions based on feedback and changes.

The report, which is intended to help supporters of continuous school improvement understand “how context shapes choices about how to improve,” examines school improvement efforts from the point of view of the Jobs to Be Done Theory, which holds that all people, including school leaders, aim to make progress in their lives.

Interviews with school system leaders about their recent improvement efforts help shed light on the Jobs to Be Done that prompt leaders to take their chosen paths to school improvement.

Job 1: Correct

Leaders who adopted continuous school improvement to solve a specific problem experienced a job called “Correct.” These leaders wanted to see their school systems improve because they felt personally responsible for students’ success and well-being. They realized they didn’t have the tools to address problems that turned out to be systemic, and continuous improvement helped them break through the systemic issues that held back progress.

Job 2: Coordinate

This job involves school leaders with a specific problem spanning beyond their immediate realm of influence. These school leaders also felt a deep sense of responsibility to their students, and they realized factors out of their control were partly responsible for less-than-desirable outcomes. Continuous improvement gave them “a language and a set of methods tey could use to rally together the other people they depended on in order to solve their problem.” They also wanted to excel as leaders, and continuous improvement helped them achieve that goal.

Job 3: Reorient

School leaders in this job category wanted a completely new approach for helping the people in their schools and school systems solve complex problems. They had to address an entire system full of problems instead of one single problem. Instead of simply believing they could be more persistent in a prolonged push for change, these school leaders knew that continuous improvement would help the people closest to them find new ways to view problems in order to work together for real change.

While all school leaders will aim to improve, those improvement goals may not always be realized. Shedding light on different paths that support successful school improvement through continuous school improvement can help leaders ensure that actual improvements produce real and lasting benefits for students.

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Laura Ascione

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