Continuous Improvement Projects Test New Interventions to Tackle District and School Priorities

REL Northeast & Islands has been partnering this year with three districts in our region to build their capacity to engage in continuous improvement (CI) to address priorities and solve problems. An improvement approach first developed in the health care field, continuous improvement uses an iterative process known as “Plan, Do, Study, Act”—or PDSA—to implement changes that are based in research and work well in an authentic school or district context (e.g., Bryk, Gomez, Grunow & LeMahieu, 2015).

(We hosted a related webinar, “A Practical Approach to Continuous Improvement in Education,” on Oct. 4, 2016.)

The Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) Cycle

What will
happen if we
try something
Try it
What's next?
Did it work?

Given the unique circumstances of every classroom, school, district, or community—and the length of time that rigorous research can take—CI offers local educators a framework they can use to identify specific problems they seek to address, brainstorm factors that contribute to the problem as well as possible solutions, and then implement and analyze—or “test”—the proposed solution in a rapid testing cycle. The result: locally based, data-driven changes to classroom practices and/or school or district systems that can lead to improved instruction and student outcomes.

REL Northeast & Islands collaborated with members of three research alliances to initiate a CI project that built upon the alliance’s ongoing work. In each case, the CI topic is aligned with the larger goals of the alliance and represents a deepening focus on a topic the alliance has examined over the last several years.

Since January, REL Northeast & Islands “coaches” have supported teams at each CI project site in implementing at least one PDSA cycle. We walked team members through the CI process, helping them to work collaboratively to develop problem statements, identify initial interventions, and plan data-collection strategies. Following implementation of the initial intervention and data collection, the coaches and the larger alliance team helped each CI site team to analyze their data and modify their intervention for a second PDSA cycle. Additionally, we are facilitating a virtual Continuous Improvement Learning Community across the three sites to share lessons learned and further build the CI capacity and knowledge of all three alliances.

What Did We Do?

Here are brief summaries of each project site and project:

Windham Public Schools, Windham, Conn.

English Language Learners Alliance

Site Team Leader:
Karen Lapuk, Director of Bilingual Education, ESOL, & World Languages

Windham Public Schools has a large and growing English learner student population, yet the district has observed that the engagement and achievement of English learner students lags behind other students. Windham asked to apply a CI process to support ESL and general education English language arts (ELA) teachers at the middle-school level who co-teach several classes a day but have had varying success with their co-teaching. The CI process is focused on adapting a co-teaching planning tool (Murawski and Dieker, 2013) that ESL and ELA teachers can use together to better incorporate instructional strategies and delineate their roles in the classroom. Based on the CI process, the district intends to use the planning tool with new teams in the middle and high schools in 2016/17.

I would like to use the actual planning product from this PDSA work, as well as the continuous improvement process, with another school to have them take a broader look at co-teaching with the addition of co-planning,” Karen Lapuk, of Windham Public Schools, said. “Implementing this as a way to build practice and strategies as well as collect the data they need to see the difference from the beginning to the end will be very helpful.

Manchester Public Schools, Manchester, N.H.

Northeast Educator Effectiveness Research Alliance

Site Team Leaders:
Pat Snow, Executive Director of the Innovation Zone, and Sharon DeVincent, Director of Federal Projects and Professional Development

For five years, REL Northeast & Islands has provided research-based technical assistance to Manchester Public Schools to support the development and use of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) to advance student achievement and evaluate educator effectiveness. Since 2014, we have worked with the District SLO Planning Committee (DSPC) to support their development of a districtwide SLO policy and train their teachers in gathering, understanding, and using data to develop SLOs. Yet, DSPC members observed that district principals, who typically serve as teacher evaluators, were unsure how to provide useful feedback to teachers on their progress related to SLOs. As a result, the DSPC chose to apply a CI process to guide their development of a conversation protocol/feedback tool. This tool was designed to support principals’ engagement in effective discussion with teachers about SLOs. The PDSA cycles have generated a tested and revised tool that the district will implement with more principals in 2016/17. The DSPC also plans to continue cycles of PDSA as they scale up implementation.

New Suncook Elementary School, Lovell, Maine

Northeast Rural Districts Research Alliance

Site Team Leader:
Rhonda Poliquin, Principal

New Suncook Elementary School teachers have been implementing curricula and instructional strategies aligned with the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSM) and their Standards for Mathematical Practice. The school principal and teachers determined that while the CCSM content is being covered, both the teachers and the students are struggling to implement the Mathematical Practice Standard 3: Construct Viable Arguments and Critique the Reasoning of Others, which means—in layman’s terms—to improve how students talk about math and their mathematical understanding. Specifically, the site team determined that the “change idea” or intervention to be tested through the CI process would be to implement a set of “sentence starters and frames” (simple phrases or key language students and teachers use to explain their techniques for solving math problems) to promote high-level mathematical talk, or discourse, in their classrooms. The teachers employed these sentence starters and frames through several PDSA cycles, and several teachers have observed that engaging in this work prompted them to think critically about how they used these tools with students and the data they could collect to determine if they were seeing a change in their students’ “math talk.”

One thing that was really helpful about the CI process was starting with something small, instead of trying to make a gigantic change,” said Rhonda Poliquin of New Suncook Elementary School. “It was interesting to see we were able to implement something and it really had a big effect, though they were just small tweaks to pieces that teachers were already doing. So knowing that PDSA does not have to involve major initiatives but can lead to improvement through small tweaks, I think, helped with teacher buy-in and also helped us collect data more easily.

What Did We Learn?

At our June CI Learning Community meeting, we had a rich discussion about lessons learned in implementing the CI process, as well as the site teams’ plans for continuation in the coming school year. Lessons learned include:

  • The CI process requires sufficient time to:
    (1) adequately define the problem,
    (2) establish a plan for implementation and data collection,
    (3) study the results, and
    (4) repeat the process more than once during a school year.
  • CI teams are most effective when they are creative and take a problem-solving approach to practical data collection, especially as it is challenging for teachers to collect data while teaching.
  • Engaging district and school leadership in the CI process helps ensure the work is supported and sustained.

Looking ahead, all three districts have plans to continue the work they have begun this year, either by scaling the initiative to more teachers or principals, or by using the PDSA cycle to address new problems.

Learn more about REL Northeast & Islands Analytic Technical Support.


Bryk, A.S., Gomez, L.M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P.G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA.

Murawski and Dieker (2013). Leading the Co-Teaching Dance: Leadership Strategies to Enhance Team Outcomes. Council for Exceptional Children, Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.