How We’re Learning to Improve This School Year

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Note: Here’s part one in our Learning to Improve series which will be a primary focus of the School Performance Institute blog this year.

Improving schools is like trying to change a tire while driving down the highway. Especially in high-poverty settings, it can actually feel a bit like trying to change multiple tires while moving at high speeds. The normal work of running a school has to happen while at the same time that you’re adding in a new set of initiatives aimed at improving some aspect of your organization. This is incredibly hard and complex work that requires time, resources, and effort- it’s not for the faint of heart.

This year at United Schools Network (USN), we’re learning the science of improvement and sharing our journey in the hopes that it will make your improvement work a little easier. We’ve just kicked off this work, but we’ve already learned quite a bit about starting an improvement project.  

Check out the seven lessons we’ve learned so far.

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#1 Make disciplined improvement work a component of your strategic plan.

It’s critical that executive leaders see improvement work as a key organizational function and allocate resources as such. When our CEO and board collaborated to update the strategic plan last year, they made the successful launch of the School Performance Institute (SPI) a key part of the plan. SPI is the learning and improvement arm of USN, so this move is an explicit statement that the work that SPI is doing both inside and outside of the network’s schools is a core part of how USN operates.

#2 Carefully choose an improvement methodology.

At SPI, we’ve chosen improvement science as our framework because of the promising work being done at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Improvement science is a focused learning journey with the overall goal of developing the necessary know-how for a reform idea to spread faster and more effectively. This science has its roots in healthcare (check out the work being done at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) and now leaders at Carnegie are learning how to make IHI’s approach work in schools. At its core, improvement science requires us to get into the details as to how any proposed set of changes is actually suppose to work in practice to improve outcomes. This is not typical in education where more often a reform idea’s logic of action is typically underspecified.

#3 Identify an important problem your organization is facing.

Important improvement projects are often staring you in the face. Think about a problem that has been repeatedly discussed within your organization without any meaningful improvement. Perhaps it is related to changes in your academic data that occurred after new state tests were rolled out a few years ago. Or, maybe you are like many schools across the country impacted by increased instances of chronic absenteeism.

For us, we realized that despite having historically high 8th grade test scores, more of our 8th graders were off-track for success in high school than we previously thought. This is the improvement problem that we are focusing on this year.

#4 Identify an advisor for your improvement project.

In order to successfully execute an improvement project it only makes sense that you’d need an advisor skilled in the improvement science methodology. After more than two years of study, I’m feeling confident that I can serve as an improvement advisor for a project at USN. I attended Carnegie’s Improvement Summit in 2016 and 2017 and ran an internal improvement project in 2017. I’ve read the seminal works on the science including Learning to Improve and The Improvement Guide in addition to numerous articles. Whether your improvement advisor is someone internal or external to your organization, you’ll need a coach that can guide you through the process.


#5 Find the time to do improvement work.  

If improvement work is viewed as an extra assignment or something in addition to “our normal work”, the project will not likely happen. This is probably one of the biggest challenges to improvement work in general, but especially in schools. There are finite opportunities for adult collaboration because we spend so much of the day with our students. At USN, we instituted a morning hour that is set aside each day for various meetings. Even with this time built into the work day, scheduling meetings is a challenge. The power of improvement science though is to embed the learning from the project into the time a school already has in place for professional learning and meetings. This is powerful because the learning is then tied directly to the most important problems being faced by the school.

#6 Put a plan in writing.

Improvement projects are initiated by a written proposal. This process is new at USN, so I initiated the project and wrote the proposal. In the future, as improvement science becomes embedded in the way we work, the idea is that anyone in the network will be able to draft a proposal for a potential improvement project. A typical proposal is made up of the following sections: intent statement, aim statement, audience, deliverables, project team, and key resources and experts. Once the project team discusses the proposal, our next step will be to use it to write our project charter.

You can check out our project proposal below.

#7 Share your improvement journey.

Communicating and sharing progress with others is a key tenet of the improvement process. As we move through the ups and downs of our improvement work, we will be sharing what we learn so that others can see what works and what doesn’t. Our goal is to share our key learnings to help others use improvement science to build success in their own schools and classrooms. A few ways we plan to share our successes and challenges include:

  • Internal communication with teachers, school leaders, and other key stakeholders. Keeping others regularly updated helps build understanding and engagement. We want everyone to be a part of the process, and we are open to feedback. This also helps our team become familiar with the improvement science process for future projects.

  • Regular blog posts. Communicating with outside audiences helps keep us on track and builds excitement. Knowing that others are interested in what we are doing is inspiring.

  • SXSW EDU 2019 & other conferences. We are hoping to take a case study of our improvement work to larger audiences through presentations at various conferences and summits throughout the year. This includes the 2019 SXSW EDU conference. Please take a moment to vote for our improvement case study!

More on How We’re Learning to Improve

At the School Performance Institute, we are studying school design best practices both within the United Schools Network as well as at high-performing, high-poverty schools across the country. We’re opening our doors to learn from others and share what we’ve learned at our first Study the Network workshop of the year at Columbus Collegiate Academy-Main St. on September 13th. And, be sure to follow our progress this year as we share what we learn during our improvement journey.

John A. Dues is the Director of the School Performance Institute and Chief Learning Officer for the United Schools Network in Columbus, Ohio. The School Performance Institute is the learning and improvement department of the United Schools Network. Send feedback to