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Roundup Blog Series

Creating a culture of continuous improvement through Oklahoma Excel

women and men discussing

By Marshal Conley | October 26, 2020

This post wraps up the blog series from the Southwest Networked Improvement Communities Research Partnership, a collaboration between REL Southwest and the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE). REL Southwest’s Marshal Conley concludes our focus on the Oklahoma Excel initiative by sharing the experiences and views of two Oklahoma Excel improvement fellows and why they were motivated to participate in Oklahoma Excel for a second school year. Improvement fellows are trained by Oklahoma Excel to serve as improvement science “champions” in their buildings and implementation leaders for their NICs. (Learn more about NICs and improvement science in this REL Southwest Resource Roundup. Review Part 1 of the blog series for a program overview and reread Part 2 for Oklahoma Excel pilot program details.)


Learn more about Oklahoma Excel and the program’s scope to date:
infographic of the OK Excel program and its scope
Since February 2019, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) has engaged districts and schools across the state through Oklahoma Excel, an innovative professional development program through which teams of educators form networked improvement communities (NICs) to implement and test promising instructional practices through rapid improvement cycles known as Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles. REL Southwest has partnered with OSDE through two cohorts of districts, and continues to do so with the launch of a third in September 2020, to provide coaching and critical feedback to OSDE aimed at improving the professional development OSDE provides to participating districts and refine implementation of NIC processes.

Throughout the partnership, REL Southwest and OSDE have pursued several outcomes focused on providing an experience that encourages participating districts to continue using principles of improvement science either by continuing in the Oklahoma Excel program or implementing NICs on their own. As Oklahoma Excel launched its third cohort, two teams that had participated in the previous cohort decided to sign up for a second year in the program. McAlester Public Schools once again brought teams focused on improvement aims in mathematics and English language arts, expanding its math team to more buildings in the district in this second year. Oklahoma Connections Academy, a virtual public school, expanded from one grade 3–12 math team last year to bring an elementary grades math team and a secondary math team. Connections has also added an English language arts team this year, and each of their teams includes special education teachers. Each district’s improvement fellow was instrumental in both bringing their districts back to Oklahoma Excel and leading the districts to expand participation. In McAlester, that improvement fellow is Timothy Collier, a veteran math teacher, teacher-leader, and professional development facilitator with over 30 years of experience. For Connections Academy, Donna Hogan brings her 19 total years of teaching math and leading math teachers (with the last seven spent at Connections) to the role, including experience as a department chair and a focus on elevating and validating the efforts of teachers in virtual schools.

Both Collier and Hogan cite several common factors that drove their decisions to return to Oklahoma Excel and expand participation. First and foremost, they stress the high quality of professional development that underpins the Oklahoma Excel NICs. Collier calls it “some of the most excellent professional development that I’ve been involved in, and I’ve never come away wishing that I hadn’t been there.” Hogan reiterates this, adding that the explicit focus on implementing promising, evidence-based math practices that all teachers in her school see as valuable makes it easy for her team to put excitement and effort behind the learning experience. The team behind Oklahoma Excel at OSDE, including Director Dawn Irons and a group of instructional specialists who steer the NICs in their respective content areas, pair this enthusiasm for the evidence-based instructional practices with a keen focus on creating experiences that align with research on effective professional development. This includes, as Collier notes, that Oklahoma Excel provides sustained support. “It’s not a one-and-done, go-listen-to-somebody-talk-and-then-file-that-in-the-box-in-the-back-of-the-room-and-never-think-about-it-again kind of work.” The Oklahoma Excel team, unlike other entities that organize and facilitate NICs, focus just as much, if not more, on providing professional development on the pedagogical approaches and instructional practices that make up the NICs’ change ideas as on NIC processes. This strategy embeds the professional learning and the NIC approaches authentically in the practices and assessment of the impact of the practices, creating what Hogan refers to as a situation in which the new practices aren’t replacing or adding “one more thing” to teachers’ workloads. The learning is job embedded—teachers on the NIC teams are learning about practices, implementing them almost immediately, and then re-engaging with the NIC to use data to learn how to improve those practices. 

Related to the quality of the professional development, both Collier and Hogan and their NIC teams strongly value the instructional practices that make up the NICs’ change ideas. The past two cohorts of math NICs have focused on improving students’ abilities to explain and justify their thinking and reasoning using puzzle problems. Like the other NIC change ideas, Oklahoma Excel intentionally selected a practice that’s based in research and aligned to standards. Both Collier and Hogan feel that this instructional practice is a strong example of Oklahoma Excel’s vision of “ambitious teaching and learning” and that the practice pushes both the teachers in the NICs and their students to greater depth of knowledge.

NICs’ continuous improvement models also provide the participating educators opportunity to use data in a meaningful way, which also factored in McAlester’s and Connections Academy’s decisions to return to the program. Hogan stresses that Connections Academy teachers felt the way PDSA cycles used data “enhanced our curriculum.” She continues, “We felt like we were seeing improvement and results more quickly and could make adjustments more quickly.” Collier points out that using data in schools is not a new experience but that using the NIC model allowed for an experience that “in its totality is more useful than data collection we do most of the time in public schools.” He further explains that schools typically collect a huge amount of data but “do very poor analysis” and in contrast Oklahoma Excel provides “tools to analyze the data in such a way that we can make good decisions efficiently to be better educators for students.” 

Finally, Collier, Hogan, and their peer educators on their NIC teams feel that the Oklahoma Excel program effectively combines data with the human-centered aspects of teaching and learning. Both cite how the NIC approach elevated the way their teams and colleagues collaborated. Collier notes that the teachers in his district have come together as “a group of professionals, a group of people that made it their business to continue to get better.” Additionally, both express how the type of research they do in NICs contrasts with traditional research on educational improvement. Hogan explains that with this work, they’re able to make sure their students don’t get lost as just numbers on a spreadsheet. “You never forget that when you're doing this work that it's making a difference for an individual. A student with a name. I mean, he has a name. He has a face. He has a backstory. And the data is of better quality because it’s smaller, it’s embedded, and it’s not as stressful or inauthentic as a high-stakes summative assessment.”

Both Collier and Hogan received overwhelming support from their administrators to continue in the program, and McAlester is even piloting NICs outside of Oklahoma Excel. And they both see the potential beyond their contexts for this model of pairing high-quality, sustained, job-embedded professional development with improvement science. Hogan feels the next steps are to focus on the question, “How can we take what we've learned and not just keep it to ourselves and to our students, but help other schools across the state of Oklahoma or even beyond that?” Collier agrees with the power of the model to implement, test, and scale up solutions “by focusing on questions for real teachers and real classrooms with real students in our state, in our little towns, with work that is done by the people that are in the classrooms, with this model of having quality training and guidance that empowers people.” He adds, “This kind of work, this business of improvement science, is the way that we need to move forward with most of our problems in education.”


For more information about the NIC process or improvement science:


This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under contract 91990018C0002, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.

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Author Information

Profile photo of Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley

Senior Technical Assistance Consultant | REL Southwest

mconley@air.org