How One School District Hardwired Continuous Improvement Practices to Change their Culture and Adjust through Disruption
Adopting a continuous improvement effort is exceptional for education leaders. However, often after implementing improvement science, leaders find themselves questioning whether they are making improvements and might find it difficult to define and sustain progress. The Estacada School District in Oregon made a commitment to adopting a continuous improvement mindset and implementing the Evidence-Based Leadership framework across their school system. One year later, the difference it has made is clear. Superintendent Ryan Carpenter’s approach to starting small and putting people first not only transformed the work environment and the lives of those the district serves, it also prepared them to collectively face disruption brought to their community.
Practices that inspire real change in culture
Before beginning their continuous improvement journey, the Estacada School District understood the impact evidence-based leadership can have in education organizations. Their team became exposed to improvement science by attending events like the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education and through improvement leaders like Tony Bryk, Pat Greco and Corey Golla.
Superintendent Ryan Carpenter and the Estacada leadership team wanted to engage in continuous improvement. Like many organizations, they struggled to find a long-term framework that took a system-wide approach to transforming the culture of the organization around continuous improvement rather than just tools for implementing improvement science. In Accelerate Your Performance podcast episodes 97: Continuous Improvement: Where Do You Start and 98: Jump All-In to Improve, Ryan describes the three problems he observed within his organization:
“The first was our improvement tools were not sustainable on their own. We did fishbones. We did causal loops. And all of it was very complex… We were biting off way too much when we were looking at the complex problems. We were really struggling getting any sort of great outcome from these complex tools with nothing supporting it.
The second problem was that after completing our very first strategic plan, I had no idea if anything that we did led to any results or not. We just couldn’t track it in a way that we felt like we could hang our hat on anything specific that made it good or bad as we tried to make our school district better.
Last but not least, we felt like our district had no core values. We had a strategic plan. We could recite the mission statement. But, at the end of the day, we were still a big ship just kind of drifting aimlessly in the wind without any sense of core values to kind of help us guide what we wanted to become great at and what we wanted our students to be able to say that they experienced while being in our great school district.”
Superintendent Carpenter and the Estacada leadership team recognized that implementing continuous improvement was more than just finding a few new tools to use. It requires a high level of commitment and a thoughtful organization-wide approach. The Estacada School District’s commitment to sustainable continuous improvement has already impacted their organization through measurable results in employee engagement and student achievement during their first year alone.
- Employee engagement score increased from a 4.21 to a 4.4, even as employees were surveyed in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- District services score improved from a 4.08 to a 4.17 by using an Evidence-Based Leadership process to shift the mindset of the district office leaders to focus on serving the leaders in Estacada schools.
Even failure can inspire a foundation for continuous improvement
Ryan also explains during his interview that the best part of improvement work is failing forward. Estacada didn’t let COVID-19 disruptions derail their commitment to continuous improvement and student achievement. Instead, Estacada used the pandemic as an opportunity to adjust and keep learning. When Oregon cancelled state assessments, Ryan and his team adjusted their pillar goal to make sure that 100 percent of students demonstrated proficiency in the essential learning standards during the distance learning time. Overall, the district scorecard result was that 60 percent of students during distance learning demonstrated proficiency. However, this fail was actually a huge win.
“We fell far short of our goal. But the great part about what we did was because we created a dashboard that monitored students during this distance learning time, every week we knew where kids were, and which kids needed support. At the end of the day, this fail-forward opportunity enabled our next year’s grade level teachers to know exactly which standards kids have demonstrated proficiency in and which [students] are short still and where they need to go… We believe we’re going to start next year with an advantage because we can point where each kid is at this time. And it was all using the Evidence-Based Leadership framework to do this work.”
To continuously improve, continuous learning is a must. Sometimes disruption can be the greatest innovator.
10 tips to adopt a continuous improvement framework
Throughout podcast episodes 97 and 98, Ryan Carpenter offers valuable insights from Estacada’s first year pursuing a continuous improvement journey:
As Stephen Covey said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” When focusing on too much, nothing gets done. Leaders are most effective when focusing on how to do a few things really well. Adopting a continuous improvement mindset doesn’t happen overnight. To sustain success, approach Evidence-Based Leadership one step at a time.
Leadership commitment to excellence
One of the few things Ryan and his team first established was their dedication to the first principle in the Nine Principles® for Organizational Excellence: commit to excellence. At a leadership retreat, his team established that a commitment to people and service would be their focus for the year. This leadership focus generated over 3,000 thank you notes sent out by the leadership team during this year.
1 goal 1 pillar
To continue the theme of starting slow, Estacada focused on one goal within one pillar for the entire year: student achievement. Every school leader and department goal aligned to the focus on student achievement. Eventually this will increase; however, this narrow focus built a solid foundation to accelerate performance in the years to come.
Service and people first
Estacada focused on two main areas: student achievement and their commitment to putting people and service first. Service from a school district leader perspective involves actions to build employee, student and community confidence and trust— starting with district leaders to principals to teachers to students and families. For students to achieve, people have to come first.
Survey to improve service
If it isn’t measured, how will we know if we are improving? Furthermore, how will we know what to improve if we don’t gather feedback from key contributors themselves? To improve service, leaders survey the district’s key contributors and employees. Following a regular cadence —after contributors are surveyed— leaders communicate the results using transparency and include what actions will be taken based on the information received.
Estacada School District leaders own their decisions as a team. They have replaced negative we/they behavior with a sense of collective ownership by aligning all leaders to one goal for student achievement and gathering feedback to plan district actions. People are more likely to feel invested in the outcome when they truly understand how exactly they fit in to the organization’s goals.
Values lead the way
Even in times of distraction and disruption values remain the guiding force. Ryan and his leadership team could have let this pandemic derail their progress. Instead, their resilience and ability to focus on people and service awarded them an opportunity to celebrate their growth in service and employee engagement.
Communicate to support leaders
To maintain that focus on people and service Ryan established daily huddles with leaders to provide consistent support during uncertain times. This routine communication created an opportunity for leaders to have alignment and solve problems together.
Include all people that you serve
While some leaders or organizations may rely on a top-down approach to goal creation, everyone benefits when we involve key contributors in the creation of goals. In education organizations it is vital to include employees, students, parents and members of the community surrounding the school. These individuals want to provide input on the direction of the organization. They also have valuable insight regarding what is most important for success.
Learn and practice
Give your organization and its leaders time to practice new tools, routines and continuous improvement initiatives. Ryan and his team used a scorecard in their first year to practice having the right conversations using scorecard data and develop deeper relationships with their employees and the public. While the scorecards weren’t used for leader evaluations after the first year, Estacada did publicly post their scorecards to hold themselves accountable to their community.