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Continuous Improvement (CI), simply put, is the unrelenting efforts of everyone involved in education- teachers, school staff, students, caregivers, administrators, researchers - to make changes that will lead to better outcomes. CI provides a methodology to accomplish ambitious goals, using data throughout to guide change in local contexts. This is especially powerful when networks - such as the Networks for School Improvement - bring together educational organizations, school districts, and the families and students who they serve to accomplish ambitious goals to build a more equitable education system. 

With Continuous Improvement, everyone has a role to make the system better. Methods must be flexible and simple enough to integrate everywhere - from daily classrooms to district administration, yet robust enough to influence the cultural shift required to transform organizations to lead for equity. 

Our organization, Shift, thrives on adapting CI approaches to work in different contexts. We rolled up our sleeves in partnership with equity leaders and educational experts with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design an online course —Improvement Methods for Equity (IM4E). This fundamentals-level course introduces CI skills with a focus on their simplicity, yet showing how they can be leveraged to help diverse teams achieve complex equity goals.

Creating the IM4E Experience

We selected fourteen organizations to be part of the first IM4E Community. These organizations are a vibrant mix of school districts, educational intermediaries and national education organizations. Each organization formed teams of four to six people, bringing rich diversity in perspective from principals, teachers, students, social workers, and researchers. 
The team experience in IM4E begins with articulating an organizational equity imperative, a written statement articulating the inequities that your organization is committed to and why. This is the bedrock for the rest of the course which guides teams through eight fundamental improvement skills to identify root causes, build empathy and capacity for change, sharpen their aim and develop change theory, measure impact, and generate new knowledge by testing changes - all linked to this larger imperative.

For each skill, participants have the opportunity to access: 

  • Online videos and templates to learn the skill; these resources are open access for use at any time and used as pre-work for workshops;
  • Synchronous workshops to practice the skill on a case study, Shift Academy, in small groups and explore how skills fit together; and
  • Team-based coaching to apply the skill to their project to advance an equity imperative in their organization, district, or network

Learning & A-Ha Reflections

IM4E is an opportunity for teams and organizations to try CI skills. Teams were able to explore CI on a case study and when ready, find relevant ways to introduce and apply these skills in their organizations.  We saw a significant increase in overall CI skills as well as more consistent understanding across team members. This signals that teams will be able to apply this skill set in the future, and 84% of participants reported that they had already applied content from IM4E in other parts of their organizations. 

This early application of skills led to powerful insights. These insights were not just about each individual skill, but the skills’ power when used together by a diverse and inclusive improvement team. Deborah Pickett, an instructional trainer and coach for mathematics in Pasco County School District saw that her team was able to use process mapping - one of the CI skills developed during IM4E - to identify where specific steps may be unclear, redundant or create barriers that result in inequities: :  “While mapping out the steps for our process it became clear that there were lots of areas where the system can break down. We could blend our different lenses—teacher, elementary vs middle school, student, coach—for a broader idea of what the process looked like with various roles within a system.”  

For Garner Andrews, a teacher at the Internationals Network for Public Schools found the rapid cycles (often called Plan Do Study Act or PDSA cycles) for learning and improvement helpful: “Frequent PDSAs gather lots of data, allow for lots of action, AND give us more immediate feedback.” 

This experience taught all of us at Shift that when you create an opportunity for educators to build equity-focused CI skills, they will leverage this skillset to advance their educational goals.

IM4E Community Success! 

Our team was impressed by the depth of learning in this community. Working for justice and equity is complex and requires a commitment to deeper reflection. After IM4E, we saw a significant increase in participants reporting that their organization has a clear equity imperative and exploring approaches to build shared responsibility for equity in their organizations or network.
According to National 4-H Council Director of Development Rebecca Kelley, IM4E leveled-up 4-H’s equity commitment and capacity for change. “As an organization that was already committed to data-driven improvement, the team experience connected our way of doing continuous improvement to new partners at the school and district levels. This project is a model that has advanced our equity commitment.” (Rebecca Kelley, Director of Development) National 4-H Council 

Ready to Sharpen Your CI Skills in Service of Equity? 

As one program participant shared, “Equity is more than just getting somewhere. We want to ensure effective, equitable change that lasts a long time.” If you are working toward long-lasting equitable change, we invite you to use the improvement skill-builder videos, downloadable tools, and templates available on Shift’s website. If you're interested in learning more about opportunities to participate in IM4E, visit www.shift-results.thinkific.com to see our current course offerings, or email us at [email protected] to talk about custom learning experiences for your team.

This post originally appeared on What We're Learning, a blog hosted by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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