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Setting a Foundation for Continuous Improvement

February 12, 2021

SRI International
   CJ Park, REL Appalachia
   Ashley Campbell, REL Appalachia

School and district leaders frequently seek ways to improve outcomes for the students they serve. At the same time, they often wonder whether the strategy they select will meet the specific needs of their local context. The continuous improvement process can help education leaders understand whether a strategy, such as using digital or personal outreach to students to reduce summer melt, is likely to be effective for their students and assess whether local adjustments to programs are working or may need further modification. During a recent virtual workshop at the 2020 National Forum to Advance Rural Education, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia staff shared a five-phase continuous improvement process, co-developed with leaders from four rural school districts in eastern Kentucky who were working to improve students' postsecondary transitions. The five-phase approach can be taken up by any school or district team interested in using continuous improvement in their local community.

How can continuous improvement help schools and districts?

Continuous improvement is a process that seeks to increase the effectiveness or efficiency of a system by making small-scale changes that are repeatedly evaluated by a series of tests.1, 2, 3 When educators undertake a new program or practice, the continuous improvement process can provide information about the program's implementation and help educators decide how to adjust implementation, if needed, to increase the likelihood the program will lead to desired outcomes. During REL Appalachia's workshop at the National Forum to Advance Rural Education, education leaders from eastern Kentucky shared their experiences with using the approach to address local problems of practice. The education leaders described the following benefits of the process:

  • Continuous improvement helped them stay focused on their school's long-term goals during periods of remote learning.
  • Continuous improvement helped them discover new sources of data.
  • Continuous improvement offered a new way to tackle big challenges.

Five Phases of Plan-Do-Study Act continuous improvement cycle

Five phases are better than four

Many educators are familiar with the four-phase Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) continuous improvement cycle, which offers a systematic way to collect and analyze data to determine whether small changes to a system or practice lead to improvement.4 Based on coaching activities in eastern Kentucky, REL Appalachia staff have learned that educators often need additional dedicated time to effectively define their problem and choose an aligned, evidence-based strategy. To fully benefit from a PDSA cycle, educators should start with an important preparatory phase first: Setting the Foundation. REL Appalachia workshop facilitators used a construction metaphor to emphasize the importance of setting a strong foundation before starting a new project. The table below outlines the steps associated with each phase.

Phase Steps
1. Set the foundation
  • Define the problem
  • Create your theory of action
  • Select an evidence-based strategy
2. Plan: Make a blueprint
  • List the action steps
  • Identify data to collect
  • Make predictions
3. Do: Let's build
  • Implement the action steps
  • Monitor the data
4. Study: It's time for the inspection
  • Compare initial predictions with actual occurrences
  • Identify patterns and trends to inform next steps
5. Act: Correcting errors and redesign
  • Identify new learnings
  • Think about next steps, adjustments, and improvements

Practicing improvement

The workshop guided participants through a fictional scenario, which offered an opportunity to see the continuous improvement process in action. After learning about each phase, participants joined breakout rooms to apply the process to fictitious Deer View High School. Using an imagined scenario helped attendees bring the five-phase process to life. One participant commented, “Breakout sessions exploring the data collected from [Deer View] allowed for more concrete thinking.”

What's next?

As schools and districts implement strategies to address new or existing problems, as well as adjust instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the five-step continuous improvement process can play an important role in the identification and implementation of evidence-based practices. Resources from the workshop are available for any educator to use and share with colleagues.

REL Appalachia tips for continuous improvement

  • Continuous improvement requires time to set the foundation. This phase, from which all other work develops, is the most important part of the process. Once you have a strong foundation, you can complete several PDSA cycles without revisiting this first phase.
  • Continuous improvement is a team activity. Identify people in your school or district who can help plan, make decisions, implement action steps, and discuss data.
  • Continuous improvement is driven by data every step of the way. Looking at many data sources when setting the foundation will help you better understand your problem of practice. Use the Plan phase to decide which data to collect or compile. Gather data in the Do phase, analyze it in the Study phase, and make decisions based on data in the Act phase.

Resources for ongoing learning

  • Continuous Improvement Facilitator Resources. In partnership with coaching participants from the Improving Postsecondary Transitions partnership, REL Appalachia developed a collection of continuous improvement resources to support education leaders in Kentucky as they strengthen implementation of evidence-based practices to boost student achievement.
  • Applicability of Evidence-Based Interventions. This infographic from REL West highlights seven contextual factors to consider when assessing whether an evidence-based practice will be a good fit for your local context.
  • Continuous Improvement in Education: A Toolkit for Schools and Districts. This toolkit from REL Northeast & Islands provides a practitioner-friendly overview of the continuous improvement process with a workbook, templates, and short videos.
  • National Forum to Advance Rural Education Workshop. This event page from REL Appalachia contains the session recording and presentation slides from the November 12 workshop entitled Implementing an Improvement Initiative: Strategies and Tools to Hit the Ground Running and Go the Distance, which describes a five-phase approach for continuous improvement.
  • The Hexagon Tool: Exploring Context. This tool from the National Implementation Research Network provides a systematic approach to examining and selecting an evidence-based practice. It uses three indicators to assess the efficacy of the program or practice (evidence, usability, and supports) and three indicators to assess site-fit (capacity to implement, fit with current initiatives, and need).



1 A. S. Bryk (2009), Support a science of performance improvement, Phi Delta Kappan, 90(8), 597–600. McTighe_Handout_2%5B1%5D.pdf

2 A. S. Bryk et al. (2015), Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better, Harvard Education Press.

3 A. K. Morris & J. Hiebert (2011), Creating shared instructional products: An alternative approach to improving teaching. Educational Researcher, 40(1), 5–14. McTighe_Handout_2%5B1%5D.pdf

4 A. Tichnor-Wagner et al. (2017), Continuous improvement in the public school context: Understanding how educators respond to plan-do-study-act cycles, Journal of Educational Change, 18, 1–30. https://www. how_educators_respond_to_plan-do-study-act_cycles