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March 1, 2022

Linking Continuous Improvement and Adaptive Leadership

The logic behind "continuous improvement" sounds simple—but it takes a skillful leader to make the process pay off.
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The "continuous improvement" process many school organizations now espouse seems simple and unassailable: Define a problem, develop an approach, try it, see if it works, revise accordingly, and repeat, ad infinitum. The logic of this approach, adapted from business and health care, has proven widely attractive in education. Over the past two decades, education has seen a proliferation of specific approaches that rely on forms of continuous improvement. Networked improvement communities, Data Wise, design-based implementation research, and instructional rounds are only a few of these.
In 2017, we set out to study the use of continuous improvement methods in education. We researched four districts in the United States and Canada that had committed to using these processes and conducted three-year case studies of each district, drawing on hundreds of observations and interviews with those involved in the improvement work. What we discovered was that continuous improvement was not the linear process that it is often understood to be; instead, there is a lot more leadership skill, relationship building, political savvy, judgment, and personal touch involved.
As we read the business and health care literature, we came to see these spheres had similarly realized that continuous improvement methods don't implement themselves. The right kind of culture-building and leadership is needed. At the same time, we saw that education poses certain distinct challenges to the use of continuous improvement methods. With education's lack of universally accepted goals and measures, strong traditions of privacy in the classroom, turbulent politics, and more, it can be particularly challenging for schools to develop the kind of ongoing, shared, and learning-oriented work that continuous improvement entails.
Despite these challenges, we did find successful cases of schools and districts using continuous improvement-based approaches to improve learning. As it happened, all were anchored by an adaptive leader, one who pushed for change but was flexible and able to skillfully navigate the context. Such leaders knew how to develop sustainable strategies that work with rather than against the enduring rhythms of schooling. Many changes they achieved required cultivating just the right balance of elements, holding tensions, and avoiding either/or thinking. Let's consider some of these situations and the leaders involved.

What Adaptive Leaders Do

These leaders occupied varied roles in their systems—both traditional roles like school principals and nontraditional like university scholars working closely with K–12 practitioners. They enabled continuous improvement methods to succeed by forging purpose; developing needed dispositions among adults; and creating the time, political space, relational climate, and culture of learning needed.

1. Forge a Collective Purpose

The most important first task of any leader is to develop a collective purpose for the work. This is a leadership task because it cannot be mandated. You can mandate that people do the same thing, but you've developed a collective purpose only if there is a shared desire to move toward a common destination. Thus, the very first step of any continuous improvement process—finding a shared problem to work on—is more complicated than it seems in the schooling context, where teachers work in loosely coupled organizations, norms of privacy prevail, and visions of good teaching vary considerably. What Judith Warren Little (1990) calls "joint work"—coming together to work on a common problem—is the exception and not the rule.
But when people do come together to work in a disciplined way on an identified problem, remarkable things can happen. One well-known example of continuous improvement in education comes from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research's work on the 9th grade on-track indicator, as documented by Emily Krone Phillips' The Make-or-Break Year (2019). Research from the consortium in the late 1990s showed that once Chicago Public School students got off track in 9th grade, they were much more likely to drop out of high school. In turn, getting 9th graders back on track greatly increased their likelihood of graduating. Overall, since this initiative started, CPS graduation rates have risen from 60 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2020 (Koumpilova, 2021).
Phillips' research showed that one key to the initiative's success was that the principals and teachers involved deeply believed in the relationship between the work they were doing and the purpose motivating it. They were willing to attend extra meetings and work longer hours because they believed the work would make the difference between "their" kids landing securely in the middle class as adults or ending up on the streets. Because this purpose was widely shared at the school level, even as superintendents changed, the initiative was sustained.
Developing common purpose like this requires considerable leadership skill. The art of choosing the focus of an initiative involves finding something that meets teachers' felt needs, is consistent with the demands of the external environment, and moves the improvement agenda forward. Sometimes the purpose bubbles up out of the needs of teachers and schools; here the role of the leader is to listen and distill some common goals, working in a mode similar to that of a community organizer. Sometimes the purpose comes from outside. For instance, we studied a successful early-literacy initiative that was foundation supported and a biology initiative that derived from a university project. In both of these cases, the leaders cultivated small groups of interested teachers to try the initiative—showing them not just what to do but also why the proposed changes would benefit students—and then grew those small communities over time.

2. Use a Compass, Not a Map

Another critical adaptive element is what Paul Lemahieu (2011) calls "implementing with integrity" rather than "implementing with fidelity." In other words, some teams followed the "letter of the law"—going through the steps in their prescribed processes exactly as they had been laid out. But these teams ran into several difficulties.
For example, the Data Wise process has teams sequentially analyze assessment data, student work, and instruction to identify a shared problem of practice and then develop an action plan to address that problem. But leaders in one school who tried to adhere to every aspect of this process ran into real-world obstacles. Some teams didn't yet have the skill needed to develop a meaningful problem of practice by analyzing instruction, so it took so long to get to the solution stage that some teams lost their commitment, or testing season waylaid the agenda.
More successful teams, by contrast, sought to remain consistent with the spirit of the process but adapted it to their circumstances. For example, leaders in a different school, also using the Data Wise process, similarly had teachers observe instruction, but rather than pushing them to agree on one new shared problem of instructional practice, they encouraged teachers to look for new strategies related to challenges they had previously identified. Many of the teachers were inspired by their colleagues' different approaches to instruction and made significant changes to their own practice as a result.
We see this as adaptive work. Despite the seemingly ordered nature of the process, it requires a leader's careful judgment to decide when it makes sense to modify the process to meet the particular needs of their context. It's more like following a compass than a map—you know the general direction you're trying to go, but adjust your route as circumstances arise. We realized that effective leaders could maintain momentum toward the destination—leaving each meeting with a set of to-dos or next steps—while showing flexibility. A key part of this was listening—trying to understand clearly where their team members were (in mood, energy, and commitment)—and then adapting based on what they were learning.

3. Develop Dispositions

A related point is that successful examples of continuous improvement processes require developing the associated dispositions, rather than following a set of steps. As we interviewed the designers of the methods, one after another expressed that the purpose of the process or steps was as a way to anchor these dispositions—such as disciplined inquiry, imaginative thinking, and reflective practice—not to be an end in themselves. One of the people who worked on the Stanford design thinking process said they "almost wished we hadn't published the hexagons"—referring to the now ubiquitous five hexagons in a figure associated with this process, each of which represents a step in the design thinking process—because of exactly this problem.
Some of the most successful examples we've seen of the use of the continuous improvement processes come when people embrace the dispositions rather than the steps. Perhaps the most important disposition is a commitment to disciplined, reflective inquiry, drawing on multiple sources of data and evidence. After a long focus on accountability, during which many teachers have felt controlled by data, in these cases, the teachers begin to feel the data is working for them.
A big part of this change, in turn, involves pluralizing what counts as data—as Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan's new book, Street Data (2021), urges. What they call "satellite" and "map" data (such as test scores) needs to be complemented by "street" data (such as the voices of students and community members). Taking a triangulating approach—what we call "holding data lightly," where different sources of data are mobilized to investigate a question—ties the use of data to older traditions of reflective practice, as described by John Dewey (1933) and Donald Schon (1983), as opposed to the narrow, compliance-driven, and exclusively quantitative approach often symptomatic of modern forms of data-driven instruction.

4. Build a Culture of Trust

Privileging dispositions over steps requires working in ways that are what Margaret Wheatley and Tim Dalmau (1983) describe as "below the line." Wheatley and Dalmau's point is that while much admittedly important organizational planning happens with regard to systems and structures—what they term as " above the line"—the success or failure of most organizational initiatives happens with regard to human beings, their identities, and their relationships to one another, what they call "below the line" work.
In all the most successful cases we observed, the leaders skillfully attended to "below the line" elements, especially building relationships and a culture of trust within their teams. This focus had many benefits; here we will describe just two.
First, it was critical in creating sustained effort and energy for the task. Teachers have many options for how to spend their time; building a working climate that feels like a space they want to be part of is critical to keeping them engaged in this work. Second, the trust among the team made it easier to have difficult conversations. As people became more invested in one another, they felt freer to share what was happening in their classrooms and share what was really on their minds. Creating a reflective culture opened lines of communication and enabled participants to move from "performing" to "learning" in their conversations with one another.
How did leaders do that? We studied one successful design-based research-practice partnership between a local university and an associated school district. The initiative organized meet-ups for teachers, district administrators, and researchers to discuss "joint work" at local bars or coffee shops as a way to meet in more relaxed settings. Leaders started professional meetings with casual "check-ins" that allowed for colleagues to share personal updates or anecdotes (and pictures) from weekend adventures. The university leader of the initiative also hosted dinners at his house. By building a culture of people who were not only working together but also liked and knew one another, the initiative was able to build a sustained project, over many years, where people could speak their minds—and adapt it to changing political imperatives and emerging new substantive ideas.

Planning a Learning Trajectory

One of the first tasks for anyone seeking to organize a learning trajectory for faculty is to ensure that the scale of the task is commensurate to the time and other resources needed to accomplish the work.

5. Work in the "Goldilocks" Zone

Another key adaptive challenge is finding the space, time, and right rhythms for collaboration. While there's often much enthusiasm for collaborative work from those at the top, teachers can often feel their individual planning time is scarce or interrupted by meetings. This conflict is heightened by the fact that schools and districts tend to use their professional development time on one initiative after another, jeopardizing the chance for sustained work on one set of priorities. One of the first tasks for anyone seeking to organize a learning trajectory for faculty is to ensure that the scale of the task is commensurate to the time and other resources needed to accomplish the work.
Some of the most successful cases of continuous improvement we witnessed fell into what we call the "Goldilocks zone of collaboration"—not too little, but not too much. For example, one elementary school initiative that used improvement science to boost early literacy settled on doing "huddle-calls"—virtual calls involving three to four teachers and one reading expert—every other week for half an hour after school. In these calls, the teachers would recount struggles they were having and share suggestions of approaches they might try to improve reading. Although the huddle-calls weren't necessarily a "high fidelity" implementation of networked improvement communities, the teachers liked the structure. It was small and personal, focused directly on what they were teaching, and gave them new ideas of things they could try—all within just half an hour every two weeks!
Strong leaders also found a middle ground in terms of the interdependence they expect from teachers. When teachers work independently, they miss out on opportunities to learn from one another. But efforts to foster joint work among teachers can also be challenging as teachers' varying beliefs, practices, and needs conflict. The huddle-call structure exemplifies this middle ground: It allowed teachers to problem-solve and share strategies related to a common focus, but didn't require that teachers agree to implement identical strategies or tightly coordinate their improvement work.
Adaptive leaders balance their ideal vision of what they hope to achieve with the realities of teachers' lives and their schedules, what we call the "rhythms of schools." While there's a place for more visionary initiatives—which entail things like time bought out for teachers, substitutes covering classes, and (ideally) paid summer assignments to engage in extended joint projects—such a level of professional ambition, unfortunately, is something most schools can rarely mount. The advantage of the Goldilocks zone is that it's sustainable; it can lead to incremental improvement without radically revamping how schools normally work.

6. Buffer Teachers from Conflicting Initiatives

If a continuous improvement process is to succeed, leaders need to continuously bring coherence to the effort by buffering it from—or bridging it to—other imperatives that exist in a district at any given moment. In the absence of this buffering or bridging, teachers will face conflicting demands, making it difficult to achieve anything coherent.
For example, we studied the development of a year-long constructivist biology course, which asked students to engage in activities that demanded a more conceptual, active approach to biology than is usual. Simultaneously, the district had a teacher-evaluation structure in place that was more traditional in its expectations of teachers. In this case, the university leader of the constructivist biology initiative developed a rubric that cross-walked the teacher competencies the district was seeking with those encouraged by the biology initiative, showing how the district's instructional goals could be met through this constructivist science curriculum. This ensured that the way in which the teachers were learning how to teach through the initiative wouldn't lead to them being penalized by the teacher-evaluation system.

Putting It All Together

These elements can come together to form a whole that's more than the sum of the parts. Forging collective purpose engenders energy and ensures that people are rowing in the same direction. Developing dispositions draws on educators' ability to engage in reflective practice and enables those involved in the process to adapt it to meet the needs of their context. Creating sufficient time and space for the work helps teachers not feel overwhelmed and retains their enthusiasm. Building a culture of relational trust enables staff to use the processes and structures set up for the change effort in ways that are more about learning than performance and to have honest exchanges that spark improved practice. Protecting this work from other priorities lets it take root and be sustained over time.
All this requires leadership and careful attention. It turns out that even the most seemingly rational process—continuous improvement—requires highly skilled adaptive leadership to achieve its ambitions.
Author's Note: This piece draws on joint research developed by Jal Mehta, Max Yurkofsky, Kim Frumin, Amelia Peterson, Rebecca Horwitz-Willis, and James Jack.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ In your experience, what are the primary barriers to successful school improvement initiatives? How might adaptive leadership skills address these?

➛ In terms of helping a faculty come to a common purpose, the authors say a leader's role is to "distill common goals … similar to a community organizer." What have you found helps lead to a common purpose?

➛ Has your school tried a school-change process with prescribed steps? Would you say you implemented with fidelity or "implemented with integrity"? In what ways did you "use a compass rather than map"?


Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Boston, MA: Heath.

Koumpilova, M. (2021, Jan. 15). More Chicago seniors may be graduating—but only a fraction finish college. [blog post]. Chalkbeat.

Lemahieu, P. (2011, Oct. 11). What we need in education is more integrity (and less fidelity) of implementation. [blog post]. Carnegie Commons Blog.

Little, J. W. (1990). "The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers." Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509–536.

Phillips, E. K. (2019). The make-or-break year: Solving the dropout crisis one ninth grader at a time. New York: The New Press.

Safir, S., & Dugan, J. (2021). Street data: A next-generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Wheatley, M. J., & Dalmau, T. (1983). Below the green line or the 6 circle model [Unpublished manuscript].

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