It’s Time for a New, Refined Commitment to Continuous Improvement in Schools

Figure 1: Bellwether’s refined continuous improvement cycle

Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen districts and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this first of two blog posts, the team unpacks Bellwether’s comprehensive approach to CI and what each step in the process looks like in K-12 school settings. Next week, stay tuned for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context. 

The pandemic and its disproportionate impact on students from historically marginalized communities underscores the value of continuous improvement (CI) as a framework for understanding the depth of unfinished learning and responding to it in an urgent, data-driven, and adaptive manner. In the past decade, CI has worked its way into the lexicon of educators, largely due to the Carnegie Foundation’s plan-do-study-act cycle that has been applied to diverse education improvement efforts from implementing ESSA plans to closing achievement and opportunity gaps. This growing education application of CI draws on more than 30 years of CI best practices in improving products, services, or processes through successive, rapid, evidence-based cycles in a range of sectors. 

Since fall 2020, Bellwether has supported more than a dozen districts and charter networks in their CI efforts, within virtual and hybrid settings, and has developed a balanced approach to the process attuned to current realities in the field. Bellwether’s CI cycle (Figure 1) follows a familiar four-step cadence (“Envision-Execute-Examine-Enact”), but builds on prior models by adding a high-impact adaptive leadership action to what’s typically been viewed as a predominantly technical process. This modification — based on 21st century change management research from Chip and Dan Heath, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and Dr. John Kotter — is grounded in the idea that while CI’s technical elements are critical to understand what needs to happen, the cycle ultimately doesn’t lead to sustained change without careful consideration of how that change will occur. 

In Bellwether’s refined approach to CI, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students.

What does this look like in practice?

Four of the schools Bellwether supported this year, each with its own unique context and focus, weigh in:

1. Envision

Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, a public charter middle school in Trenton, New Jersey, built and implemented a new, data-informed intervention program to accelerate the academic growth of its most vulnerable students. The technical work of the CI Envision stage consisted of AECP setting a vision to create a data-driven intervention program that would provide the right content to the right students at the right time. AECP then established a clear goal to leverage its intervention program to have 80% of its highest-need students reach 1.75 to 2 years of academic growth, as measured by the NWEA MAP assessment. Finally, AECP built a progress monitoring system to look at grade level aligned daily exit tickets in intervention and core classes to measure the effectiveness of both prerequisite intervention content and grade level aligned content. On the adaptive side, AECP built a coalition by having a strong eighth grade teacher team pilot this approach in its first CI cycle, enabling teachers to better troubleshoot problems in real time and facilitate training for the sixth and seventh grade teams in future CI cycles.

In AECP’s words: “[This CI cycle] improved our reflection on our targeted areas for improvement. We have been more strategic on creating intervention goals and maintaining strong leadership initiatives throughout our pilot.”

2. Execute

Seguin Independent School District, a K-12 traditional public school district outside of San Antonio, Texas, centered its CI work on developing teacher instructional capacity in a virtual academy. The technical work of the CI Execute stage consisted of a team taking action on its plan by hosting biweekly, district-wide Professional Learning Communities on virtual instruction, facilitating grade level planning time aligned to those instructional moves, and conducting 1:1 observations and coaching for virtual teachers. During this process, the SISD team gathered data and monitored progress on teacher and leader attendance, engagement, and perception of transferability of new strategies to the classroom. On the adaptive side, the team remained focused on designing high-quality supports aligned to the See it. Name it. Do it. Framework and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Virtual Look-Fors. However, SISD also had to remain agile by adjusting programs, processes, and communications as it responded to an historic set of regional ice storms, ongoing staffing shifts related to virtual instruction, and survey feedback from teachers. 

In SISD’s words: “The structures and logistics were set by the project plan and covered by the central office. This meant we had the capacity and brain space to respond to shifting circumstances and teacher needs as they arose.”

3. Examine

LEEP Dual Language Academy, a K-2 public charter school in Brooklyn, New York, focused on evaluating and coaching effective lesson planning and execution for guided reading in a hybrid setting. On the technical side of the CI Examine stage, LEEP measured impact by analyzing both process and efficacy data for its CI strategy. The team examined process data by analyzing the consistency of its strategy implementation, and dug into efficacy data to see how both teacher practice and student achievement outcomes were impacted. In this stage, the team identified the following key takeaways: (1) they were less consistent in implementing coaching and feedback on lesson execution and would need to make this shift in the second cycle of CI to drive impact, and (2) they saw less reading growth from virtual kindergarten students and identified the schedule, reading group size, and content prioritization as opportunities to address in the second cycle. The team’s adaptive work of celebrating small wins focused on noting the increase of consistency in lesson plan submission and feedback to teachers in guided reading. They also celebrated mid-year growth on the STEP assessment in second grade with 49% of students growing two reading levels or more after one month of implementation. 

In LEEP’s words: “After examining our data, I think that we have remained focused and nimble in our implementation and this has been done through careful data analysis to then inform next steps and any modifications needed to the plan.”

4. Enact

Promise Community School at Baker-Ripley, a small public charter school network in Houston, Texas, piloted a “Just In Time” (JIT) intervention model for elementary math instruction in a hybrid setting. The technical work of the team’s Enact stage centered on translating key takeaways from its first cycle of JIT intervention to make measurable shifts for a second cycle. In the first cycle of implementing the continuous JIT intervention strategy, the team saw a 30%-point increase in mastery for virtual students, however students’ proficiency fluctuated between 50 to 70%. In order to increase consistency of virtual student mastery, the Promise team shifted its data analysis to focus on remote learners by (1) analyzing remote student work and misconceptions, and (2) increasing engagement strategies during small-group virtual instruction. From an adaptive standpoint, the Promise team focused on clearly communicating adjustments for cycle 2, reinvesting the pilot team by including a rationale and updated goals for the shift, and inspiring through a reiteration of the bright spots observed in cycle 1. 

In Promise’s words: “It’s never too late to reset expectations (we reset in January). We use data to help zoom in on places for focus and problem solving, and we need to be flexible and innovative with what works for our kids.”


We hope that Bellwether’s CI cycle framework and glimpses into its application in schools help educators begin to think about how this process could live in their unique school settings. For questions or comments, please feel free to
email us, and stay tuned next week for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context.