Rethinking Continuous Improvement Processes for Challenging Times

by Rachel Klein, Partner of Strategic Initiatives

As Catalyst:Ed prepares for the launch of The Learning Lab, Rachel reflects on several conversations she’s had with thought leaders on how to best utilize CI routines during challenging times.

Catalyst:Ed works in partnership and community with organizations who run networks of schools leveraging continuous improvement (CI) routines to improve outcomes for students of color and low-income students. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I was on one of many Zoom calls with these improvement leaders on the topic of how best to support schools and teachers. The key question was: Should we pause our work with them to give them the space to adjust, or is there something we can do that would be helpful? I was privileged to be in a small group with Sarah Duncan from the Network for College Success who said, “There’s a lot of trial and error going on in schools right now. But how do we keep track of it and spread it if it’s working?” That’s when it struck me: instead of abandoning our improvement routines, we needed to adapt and leverage them to better support school teams trying to identify the best response to a rapidly evolving situation.

How might CI routines help during challenging times?  The most effective improvement networks focus on practical strategies and measurements rather than rigid methodologies or compliance activities. This approach is invaluable during periods of uncertainty or rapid change, when people who are closest to the work are most likely to perceive emerging needs and identify workable solutions. In the education context, this looks like: supporting teachers to prioritize critical challenges, find new solutions that will work for them, incorporate them into predictable routines, measure progress in ways that feel seamless to teachers and students, and share what they’re learning with others. 

This is indeed the approach taken by one of our partners in Arizona. The Arizona Meta-Network is a network of 24 schools serving 59,000 students working to increase the number of Black, Latinx, and low-income students who enroll in a well-matched postsecondary institution the fall after high school graduation. The Meta-Network leads had been planning to launch their network with predefined change packages of research-based practices that all school teams could use. But when the pandemic hit and school teams were innovating out of necessity, the leads realized they could effectively wrap improvement around what was already happening in schools. Karla Robles, from the Be A Leader Foundation, who is a co-lead of the network said, “We noted what innovative practices are currently happening, collected data, reflected on whether or not those practices led to improved outcomes, and shared those practices across the network.” Two innovations that arose from this ground-up iteration were the addition of 7:30 am FAFSA events for students and parents, and drive-in FAFSA events. 

Networked improvement can also provide the structures needed to continue centering the voices of historically marginalized students, teachers, and families during challenging times. Sylvia Symonds from Access ASU, also a co-lead of the Arizona Meta-Network, told us about one of her team leads who pulled together a variety of stakeholders to see what she could do to better support Black students in their postsecondary enrollment and attainment. She realized that the advisors who oversaw their schools’ Black Students Association had not been part of their improvement teams or the college-going work of the counselors, despite being critically connected with these students and their families. This led to a fundamental re-thinking of who should be participating in school improvement networks and the embrace of this group of talented leaders. 

Interested in learning more about how your teams can leverage networked improvement practices? On April 21, Catalyst:Ed will launch the Learning Lab for School Improvement Teams so educators interested in integrating networked improvement practices into their work can easily access equity-centered resources and expert guidance. Teams can also engage with a dynamic and interactive reflection tool and receive a custom blueprint and toolkit packed with actionable resources. We hope to see you in the Lab!

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