Tag Archives: school leadership

Committing to Continuous Improvement in Schools: A Customizable Workbook

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 district 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 final blog post, the team provides a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context. 

Last week, we unpacked the increasing value of continuous improvement (CI) cycles in education settings and included reflections from four partner schools on what Bellwether’s distinct CI process looks like in practice. 

In Bellwether’s refined CI approach, 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. 

As schools reopen this fall, leaders and educators will need to get more strategic and efficient about diagnosing and reversing unfinished student learning in their unique school settings. Bellwether’s Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook provides a customized way to do that. 

We hope this workbook will be a useful tool as school leaders assess and respond to unfinished student learning this fall and beyond.

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.

Schools Planning to Implement Strategic “Just In Time” Intervention Need to have the Mindset of a Race Car Pit Crew, and Four Enabling Conditions

Nationwide, students face the prospect of up to 10 months of learning loss due to the pandemic. For students of color, that learning loss is even higher (12 to 16 months).  

How can educators and school leaders help students recover missed learning due to COVID-19? Traditional intervention approaches include giving students work from previous grades or subject areas that they haven’t mastered before students are given increasingly challenging material. This practice is actually remediation, and it will be insufficient to help students make up lost ground.

Instead, “just in time” (JIT) intervention, a proven strategy for helping students efficiently close learning gaps so they can quickly access rigorous grade-level content, takes a more focused approach. By identifying the narrow set of prerequisite skills students need to master in order to be ready for grade level content, JIT gives students a “dose” of intervention to teach them those missing prerequisite skills so they can be ready to access grade-level material quickly. This allows students and teachers to chip away at learning gaps with intentionality and relevance over time, versus holding kids back until they have mastered all of their missed learning. 

JIT is at the top of most recommended academic acceleration strategies, and rightly so.

But JIT can be challenging to implement well because it requires both a different mindset than typically used to catch students up and it requires the coordinated use of school resources. Implementation requires school teams to adopt the mindset of a race car pit crew and ensure four key enabling conditions are in place. 

Like a great race car pit crew, the JIT approach to intervention requires educators to:

  • Pinpoint the most critical interventions 
  • Ruthlessly prioritize where to start
  • Focus on getting the driver (or in this case, the student) back on the track quickly

In contrast, like a mediocre auto mechanic, traditional remediation approaches: 

  • Run unnecessary tests
  • Require addressing everything at once
  • Result in lots of time off the road (or in this case, time not spent on rigorous grade-level content)

JIT intervention includes four key steps to implement, and four enabling school conditions to implement well. 

Four key steps of JIT intervention cycles:

  1. Identify: Identify prerequisite skill gaps for upcoming grade-level content using a diagnostic. 
  2. Plan: Plan to use high quality curricular materials to address prerequisite skill gaps before teaching the grade-level content. 
  3. Teach: Provide targeted instruction to students in prerequisite skills, leveraging various configurations (whole group, small group, 1:1). 
  4. Assess: After grade-level lessons have been taught, reassess students to determine mastery/readiness for grade level content and ongoing intervention needs.

While there is more than one “right way” to do JIT intervention, we have found these four enabling school conditions necessary for schools to have in place in order to do this work effectively:

  • Right materials: Schools will need high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum materials for core lessons and intervention lessons. They will also need diagnostics aligned to their curriculum that can be used to identify key prerequisite knowledge and skills prior to a unit of instruction.
  • Right data: Schools will need to regularly collect and analyze diagnostic data, including having a process, and dedicated time, for data analysis.
  • Right schedule: Teachers will need sufficient time to analyze data and plan for intervention. There will also need to be dedicated time for students to receive the targeted intervention on the prerequisite skills prior to the upcoming unit.  
  • Right people: Schools will need clear instructional leadership responsible for ensuring intervention happens effectively. Leadership will also be critical in coordinating resources, schedules, data, and teachers in support of interventions. (Additional teachers and interventionists to support with instruction are great to have if possible, but are not essential to do JIT intervention well.)

To help leaders and educators looking to implement JIT intervention into their program this fall, our team has created a simple tool to help assess readiness and provide guidance on implementation. 

With limited time, energy and resources, educators will need to get more strategic and efficient about identifying and supporting students’ most critical needs. Bellwether’s “Just in Time” Intervention Planning Toolkit can provide a helpful roadmap on how to do that.

Three leaders on schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s been almost a full year since the pandemic transformed our nation’s schools, and we find ourselves in yet another time of rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Schools have seen nearly every possible iteration of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning, but the leaders we work with have proven incredibly adaptable and graceful in the face of constant changes and stress.

Back in April 2020, we interviewed four leaders who piloted some of our tips and shared these video conversations. We recently followed up with two of those leaders and engaged a third to ask about their progress and lessons learned.

Watch our new three-part series with short videos from Jessica Nauiokas of Mott Haven Academy Charter School, Daniela Anello of D.C. Bilingual, and Jennifer Benavides of Fox Tech High School. What will they leave behind — and take away — from this incredibly challenging year?

Here are a few lessons from these inspiring women:

Ask how students feel before assuming they are ready to learn

Especially in schools that serve populations of predominantly low-income students and/or students of color, students may be under intense stress. They may have family members newly sick, out of work, or experiencing housing insecurity. Students may have more people under one roof than ever before, making it difficult to focus on learning. The adults in their lives are likely stretched thin and worried about events in the news.

All three leaders spoke of their intentional efforts to understand and address students’ emotional state and wellness regularly. For D.C. Bilingual, this meant checking in weekly on each family from March to June 2020, and doing so on a biweekly basis during this new school year. For Mott Haven, this has meant capturing students’ written and spoken feelings about dealing with the uncertainty in the world.

Fox Tech is piloting the Rhithm app to get a quick snapshot of how students are feeling and who has optimal capacity for learning. The tool allows the school to direct counselors or district social workers to those most struggling.

Some aspects of school or instruction may remain virtual even after the pandemic

For Nauiokas and her team, student-teacher conferences during COVID have seen higher rates of attendance and levels of parent engagement. Students can participate from home “at a time that’s convenient for the family,” she says, and the adult team can all join the line at the same time, helping students see the collective effort supporting their success. Mott Haven expects to keep these conferences virtual moving forward.

At DC Bilingual, Anello and her team are attentive to making sure students get a developmentally appropriate amount of screen time. She also believes that overall, student exposure to and mastery of technology will be beneficial in the long term. “It can help [students] navigate state tests that are on the computer,” offers Anello, in addition to giving them a chance to practice sharing their knowledge using slide decks and presentations, skills that will be useful throughout their schooling and careers.

Students need to be talking to one another

The loss of peer engagement and socialization is particularly tough for the youngest learners, so schools need to create ways for students to engage not just with teachers but with one another. These leaders have tried different virtual platforms for student-to-student engagement. Benavides’ teachers host break out rooms on Zoom or Google Classrooms, encourage students to leave comments on others’ work, and use the web application Pear Deck to allow students to engage back and forth.

Our video series is live here. If our team can support your school with curriculum, instruction, culture, or assessment planning, please contact us.

Five Lessons From a Year of Nutritional Coaching (That I Wish I Learned as a School Leader)

Last February (and not because of a New Year’s resolution, if you’re wondering), I decided to sign up for a nutritional coaching program with a trainer at my gym. Over the last 11 months, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. Yet what I’ve learned has very little to do with “diets” or figuring out what to eat. Instead, the program has helped me build some critical habits that not only helped me improve my relationship to food, they also helped me reflect on my time as a school leader and what I wish I did differently.  

If you’re resolving to be healthier in the new year, thinking about how to improve your school next year, or both(!), I hope some of the five lessons I learned can be helpful to you:

  1. Start with why, not what

Let’s face it: becoming a healthier person or improving a school is hard work. It’s hard to skip the chocolate cake and substitute carrots. It’s hard to hold teachers and students accountable to your high standards and way easier to just “let the small things slide.” Continue reading