Student success: Much more needs to be done

Children at a California public school respond to a teacher's question. (Photo: Monkey Business Images, via Shutterstock)

The new comprehensive analysis of California’s PreK-12 education system, Getting Down to Facts II, revealed that the state is moving in the right direction with reforms put in place over the last decade, but more importantly it showed much more must be done to support student success.

Many in education will argue in favor of one solution over another in terms of necessary actions to address California’s education challenges, but the one thing that we can all agree on is this: facts and solid evidence must be the foundation of productive policy development.

California’s policymakers are beginning to embrace “continuous improvement” as the way forward for improving schools.

When it comes to improving educational outcomes for the 6.2 million students in California’s public schools, long-term solutions based on evidence are essential. Historically, reforms have been large-scale, top-down interventions instituted without a deep understanding of the local systems producing the current results.

But there is a different way to think about how schools improve, particularly when we look at how organizations in other sectors have changed to see dramatically better outcomes, as the healthcare industry has done. The approach is called “continuous improvement,” and California’s policymakers are beginning to embrace this approach as the way forward for improving schools.

 California has made some big changes in the past 10 years: a new funding system that better targets the schools and students who need it most, new standards that better prepare students for the demands of the future, and a school accountability system that tracks multiple measures to better reflect what we, as a society, value in our schools.

Yet California still has big achievement gaps; our Latino, African American, and economically disadvantaged students are performing lower than their peers in other states. While state policies that provide more funding and better supports for students can help address these problems, educators must be empowered across the state to improve education locally. This is the key to dramatically improving educational outcomes for all students.

But most schools and districts do not yet have the capacity to apply these methods effectively. Our research found that there are three key barriers to the successful implementation of this approach.

First, continuous improvement requires an initial significant investment in time and money to make it a reality, and most local leaders need additional resources and support from stakeholders to invest in this kind of capacity building.

Second, good data is essential to implementing continuous improvement, and California’s data systems are not adequate for helping districts monitor progress toward a specific goal.

Finally, implementing continuous improvement is not “business as usual,” and local leaders need more training and coaching to make the shifts in practice this approach requires.

What distinguishes continuous improvement from other reform strategies is its focus on fixing the system that is producing undesirable outcomes. Continuous improvement provides a structure for educators to identify problems, design interventions specific to those problems, learn from trying them out in context, and evaluate their effectiveness while there’s still time to make any necessary changes.

In contrast to the typical top-down approach to school reform, where local leaders are told what to do, continuous improvement taps the wisdom of the members of an entire organization and engages them in disciplined problem-solving to discover, implement, and spread evidenced-based changes that work locally to improve student success. In this way, everyone, from teachers and principals to district and state leaders, works together to change the system to better support students and families.

With a statewide focus on capacity-building for people at all levels of the system, better access to actionable data, and a culture shift from accountability to improvement, we could see the kind of system-wide transformation that California’s students deserve.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Heather Hough is the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and author of two studies as part of the Getting Down to Facts II research project.

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