Imagine a school in early August. The floors are shiny and fresh paint covers the classroom walls. Fortified with renewed energy and the latest initiative from Central Office, the faculty eagerly await the start of the school year. This year’s focus is lowering discipline referrals in each grade. If realized, this could boost achievement for perennially underperforming students.
However, if poorly pursued, this initiative will soon begin to wither, ultimately wasting valuable resources and undermining student success.
Whether you’re a teacher or administrator, you have likely experienced a revolving door of initiatives. Well-intentioned directives, whether arising from the grassroots level during summer in-service or communicated at the district level, are adopted but then gradually abandoned. Changing this pattern requires a shift in how schools introduce, manage, and learn from their improvement efforts.
One way to accomplish this shift is a discipline called improvement science. According to the Carnegie Foundation, improvement science seeks to better support new initiatives through six key principles:
- Make the work problem-specific and user-centered,
- Focus on variation in performance,
- See the system that produces the current outcomes,
- Measure key outcomes and processes to scale up initiatives,
- Use disciplined inquiry to drive improvement, and
- Accelerate learning through networked improvement communities.
Let’s return to the example of discipline referrals to trace how these principles might look in practice.
Improvement Science in Action
At a July in-service, Principal Smith convenes the faculty of Independence High to discuss the upcoming year and the superintendent’s referral goals for each school within the system. Ms. Smith, cognizant that there are several possible strategies to achieve the aim of reducing discipline referrals, resists the urge to adopt a strategy until she can fully understand the problem.
She convenes a small group of grade-level leaders and interested teachers to deconstruct the issue. The group begins by considering referral data for the school and engaging with teachers across grades. Several patterns begin to emerge, but there’s still more to understand before implementing a solution. With the group’s assistance, Ms. Smith seeks more teachers’ perspectives, since they are the ones who will enact the school’s policies. These conversations reveal that there is not consensus on various misbehaviors (e.g., what exactly constitutes a tardy). By valuing the logic of the discipline system’s end users, Ms. Smith has a much higher likelihood of crafting a meaningful solution to address the competing perspectives regarding student misbehavior.
To discover the root causes of this lack of agreement, Ms. Smith leads her team through the construction of a tool called a fishbone diagram, which helps organizations analyze the causes of a problem. Ms. Smith takes care to note the perspectives of teachers who use the referral system more frequently and less frequently—this allows her to learn from variation in performance within the same system.
With the problem deconstructed, Ms. Smith asks, “What would success in reducing referrals look like at our school?” Many ideas emerge, including a shift toward restorative discipline practices or the implementation of a PBIS (positive behavior interventions and supports) system. Ultimately, the group aims to reduce the number of referrals each semester, with the final goal being a 50 percent decrease by the end of the year.
To achieve this goal, the team builds a driver diagram to communicate its theory of improvement. The driver diagram contains four primary drivers, or best bets, to advance in the upcoming school year. These primary drivers are distilled into secondary drivers (norms and processes that promote improvement) and change ideas (alterations to individual practices or new ideas to be tested). The team’s theory of improvement stems primarily from its deep inquiry into the problem and relies on testing the change ideas over time.
The team will implement the change ideas through a pattern of testing called Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles. During these cycles, teachers will provide feedback in real time that will guide future work efforts. At the end of each nine-week term, Ms. Smith will convene her teams to discuss successes and failures and to chart the best course forward.
To further triangulate her teams’ work, Ms. Smith enlists two other schools within the district to compare progress within a group called a networked improvement community. This community of accomplishment is crucial—it will serve as an accelerant to any positive developments within the network. Since the other schools will be bound by a common vision of success and identical methods, the group will leverage the collective expertise of the network to improve performance.
Adopting Improvement Science
While the above example provides only a snapshot of improvement science, it does deliver a glimmer of the method’s promise. Make no mistake: Using improvement science is demanding, intellectual work that relies on cooperation and investment from every level of a school. The prospect of implementing new ideas well should compel teachers and administrators to explore the discipline further.
Those wishing to adopt improvement science should consult Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better or visit the Carnegie Foundation’s website for more resources.