Quality Design Principle #15: Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning

“We aren’t done innovating until 100 percent of our students are graduating.”

– Ty Cesene, Principal, Bronx Arena, New York City Department of Education, NY, 2014


Quality systems model the same learning orientation and growth mindset that they seek to foster in students. They continuously innovate and improve to overcome challenges and optimize systems in service of equitable student outcomes. At the classroom level, teachers are able to respond to student learning and adjust practice to monitor pace, progress and growth. At the organizational level, districts and schools are agile enough to adjust systems and structures based on student data. As they adjust one piece of the system, they are mindful to modify adjacent or interdependent pieces to maintain coherence. Continuous improvement helps overcome bias and inequitable practices, redirect resources toward students who need support, and test new ideas that can improve overall learning and school performance.

Key Characteristics

  • Growth-oriented. Improvement is approached as a learning process where failure is an opportunity for reflection and learning.
  • Mutual accountability. Educators, students and families take collective responsibility for student learning and commit to improving so that all students succeed. Accountability is balanced with systems of support for improvement, growth and development.
  • Courageous conversations. Continuous improvement efforts are rooted in strong, trusting relationships and the skills for dialogue around uncomfortable discussions about inequity and bias.
  • Robust data systems. Data systems provide valid, reliable, timely data to support continuous improvement practice. Districts seek to have data on student growth and rate of  learning based on learner continua, not just grade-level standards.
  • Robust data practice. Districts and school have regular, collaborative and rigorous data practices in place.
  • Multiple measures. Districts and school use multiple measure of quantitative and qualitative data. Multiple measures (formative, summative, diagnostic and looking at student work) are used to understand trends and patterns in student growth and achievement. Multiple measure also include social and emotional data points to understand students holistic development.
  • Agile operations. District and school operations have the flexibility to be adapted as continuous improvement processes reveal the need for new practices, systems and supports.

How Is Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning Related to Quality?

Creating an intentional and aligned system requires continuous improvement to monitor processes and continue to build organizational knowledge needed for fidelity in implementation. Furthermore, creating an equitable education system demands that we reduce the predictive value of race, gender, class and disability in the classroom. Instead of pointing to external policies or children and their families as the problem when students aren’t successfully learning, competency-based education engages in continuous improvement to revisit school designs, culture, structure and pedagogy. The fundamental belief at the core of continuous improvement practice is this: all students can learn at high levels when provided the right experiences and supports in the right environment, and it is our job—we, the educators and leaders, in partnership with students and families—to continue to learn and improve until we have provided them these things.

Competency-based education is learning-centered. Students continue to learn until they reach mastery. Leaders and educators continue to learn about instructional strengths and weaknesses, negative impact of bias and institutional policies, and how to provide the right mix of supports to students until all students succeed. To make this possible, improvement practices balance learning and accountability. Learning processes focus on continual progress toward desired outcomes, while accountability practices focus on providing feedback to leaders and teachers on their effectiveness in supporting students. Learning and accountability structures are embedded into the system through transparency and sophisticated data-driven continuous improvement processes. Competency-based schools – in their commitment to one hundred percent of students succeeding – constantly engage in reflection, learning and adjusting culture, structures,
policies and instructional and assessment practices.

The power of data cannot be underestimated in seeking out pockets of inequitable practices and spotlighting areas where educators, schools, and districts can learn and grow. Within the traditional, top-down systems, data is often considered something that you send on to the next higher level of governance rather than an action. In competency-based education, data is a tool to test new strategies, change practices and reduce bias. Continual improvement starts with questions to guide action-based research. Inquiries posed and studied surface evidence-based insights. This process generates ideas for future action, which in turn leads to hypotheses that can be tested, outcomes that can be evaluated and changes in practice. Districts and schools use different protocols to inform their continuous improvement. What matters most is the quality of their questions, hypotheses and tests; the consistency and rigor of their process; the degree to which their learning is collaborative, reflective, and trust-building; and the strength of their ability to implement changes in practice that emerge from their inquiry.

Questions that educators and leaders may want to ask include the following.

  • What patterns do we see about students who are struggling and those that are thriving? What may be contributing to these patterns? What contributing factors result from our own practice?
  • What patterns do we see about student’s mastery of specific content and skills? At what point in a process are students disengaging or struggling to master these skills and strategies? What might we infer about the content and skills themselves? How might our own practice be strengthened to help students master these concepts?
  • Which strategies are most effective in supporting students with prior knowledge significantly less than grade level expectations? What strategies are most effective in repairing the gaps on the path toward mastering the grade level content?

Multiple sources of data, including qualitative interviews and surveys, can help identify where inequity may be undermining programming and/or where stronger equity strategies are needed.

Valuable data is not only based on the academic content students know. It also needs to consider how well students are developing the skills to learn. Districts and schools also empower students as self-directed learners to engage in continuous improvement. Like educators and leaders, they engage in cycles of inquiry about their learning processes to improve their own outcomes.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Data is available and used to identify and respond to individual students not making adequate progress in terms of academic growth and grade-level proficiency, development of transferable skills, and lifelong learning skills.
  • Schools know what students know and can do based on a broad learner continuua and monitor the repair of gaps in learning.
  • Data is available and used to support evidence-based instructional strategies, monitor effectiveness of support and intervention strategies, inform personalized professional learning for educators and catalyze continuous improvement to improve effectiveness of instruction, assessment, services and school design.
  • Districts and schools develop and use management reports to monitor pace, progress and ensure students are building the full range of skills. Management reports are designed to help identify exceptional situations in which students are not progressing and when students are advancing rapidly to better understand effective processes.
  • Teachers, paraprofessionals and case managers have opportunity for collaboration, learning and planning.
  • Schools and educators have autonomy to respond to the changing strengths and needs of students and to tailor learning experiences to needs of students.
  • Districts and schools have the autonomy to use school finances and resources flexibly in response to student assets and needs.
  • Resources are distributed to maximize the number of students who gain one or more performance levels per year and to ensure that those students who are two or more performance levels behind their grade levels are prioritized for additional targeted support.

Examples of Red Flags

Districts and schools engage in data-driven continuous improvements but fail to seek out root causes. It is always easier to add something new than it is to seek out the root causes of a problem or deconstruct the flawed policies, processes and practices of the traditional system. Districts and schools may be thoughtful about identifying a problem or trend but try to address it through additional programs or services rather than engaging in the complex challenges of changing the culture or structure. To deconstruct the barriers to learning embedded in the traditional system it is important to take the time to search out the root causes and address them.

District policy does not provide autonomy to schools to use funds flexibly. Too often districts retain control over allocating the school budget and exactly how the budget can be spent. This limits responsiveness to students and innovation. Schools need to be able to manage budgets so that they can direct resources toward those students that need more instructional support and time to repair gaps and accelerate their learning. This may include deploying staff before school starts, after school or weekends or extended support during intersessions and the summer.

When students are not progressing or are not motivated, students or families are seen as problems rather than schools and educators reflecting on how the school culture, instruction or assessment may be contributing. In a system that has a fixed mindset culture, it is easy for adults to shirk their responsibility for helping students to learn and say that “students didn’t learn because of something wrong with them or their family.” In competency-based schools cultivating a growth mindset, adults and students share responsibility to understand challenges and find solutions. Schools know that the areas in which students struggle also provide feedback about where educators can strengthen instructional skills. But the root cause may also lay elsewhere, such as the need for more timely support, strengthening the building blocks for learning such as social and emotional skills or deepening the relationship with the student and their family.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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