Crean Davis: To Move from Pandemic to Progress, the U.S. Should Establish an Institute for Education Improvement

A version of this essay appeared in Bellwether Education Partners’ “From Pandemic to Progress: Eight Education Pathways for COVID-19 Recovery

The education sector has been facing a reckoning for some time: Students in the United States consistently underperform on international assessments, and results between demographic groups are persistently and unacceptably uneven. If ever there were a case for continuous improvement, this is it.

The continuous improvement process is elegantly simple: It’s a cycle of planning, implementing, reflecting and rethinking (“Plan, Do, Study, Act”). But if continuous improvement is so simple, why isn’t the American education system embracing and implementing it at scale? Perhaps because “simple” is not the same as “easy.” Continuous improvement, done broadly, consistently and sustainably, requires leadership and systemic support.

As a center of gravity for continuous improvement, an Institute for Education Improvement, modeled after the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, could facilitate collaboration among researchers and practitioners, drive improvement efforts around vexing (but solvable) educational challenges and ground its work in the science of improvement. With the support of such an institute, education could emulate the dramatic improvements to longstanding challenges seen in other sectors.

Continuous improvement helped resurrect the Japanese economy after World War II, revived the U.S. auto industry in the 1980s and, most recently, prevented more than 120,000 unnecessary deaths over 18 months as hospitals focused on avoiding infections among patients who received a central line during surgery.

Specifically, American industry found itself falling behind in the increasingly global marketplace of the 1980s. Its embrace of continuous improvement generated dramatic results: Motorola moved from the brink of bankruptcy to worldwide market dominance and, in 1988, won the first-ever National Quality Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce; Ford moved from losses of $3.6 billion in 36 months between 1980 and 1982 to the highest automobile company profits ever seen in this country; Bridgestone Tire Company went from near-shambles to the fastest growth rate in its industry.

Nearly a decade later, health care arrived at its own turning point, spurred by decades of rising costs, inconsistent patient outcomes and increased external accountability from managed care systems. Health care leaders sought to translate the promise of continuous improvement to the practice and created a hub that could focus collaborative efforts and drive large-scale change. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement, now a self-sustaining organization with $54 million in annual revenue, paired experts in continuous improvement with researchers and practitioners. It has spurred over 50 collaborative projects that, among other health care challenges, has lowered C-section rates, reduced intensive care costs by 25 percent and halved hospitalizations for patients with congestive heart failure. It also helped build a national infrastructure for collective change on common problems of practice (e.g., preventing central line and surgical site infections), resulting in 122,000 fewer needless deaths, and a scaled worldwide framing of its work.

The world’s highest-performing countries in education do the same, integrating continuous improvement into their approaches to instruction and ongoing professional development. But in the United States, its deployment has been slow, spotty and challenging to sustain.

Of note, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has integrated improvement science with networked improvement communities; Strive Together has conducted evidence-based work around a cradle-to-career framework of developmental milestones for collective impact; and the Regional Education Laboratory system has provided capacity-building tools related to continuous improvement (Toolkit for CI in Education, Continuous Improvement Through Networked Improvement Communities facilitator guide, Introduction to Improvement Science). While promising and admirable, none of these alone fulfills the critical “center of gravity” role that the health care institute provides.

If the U.S. education sector is to dramatically improve outcomes for students, it needs large-scale, consistent and sustained organizational support for continuous improvement. An Institute for Educational Improvement could serve this purpose. As a neutral and sustainable entity, such an institute could support researchers and practitioners in addressing critical yet solvable problems.

First, it could help ensure that continuous improvement processes are applied inclusively and equitably by recruiting and supporting a diverse group of education researchers and practitioners with a range of backgrounds and experiences to design the work. They could ensure the right problems are identified; that the most appropriate strategies are selected for varying conditions (e.g., urban, rural, suburban and tribal settings); that the right metrics are used for feedback; and that accurate insights are drawn from incoming data (e.g., objectively accurate and culturally specific.) The institute could help the sector understand what kinds of support educators most benefit from as they learn the continuous improvement approach, and how those needs vary according to school, student and educator characteristics. And the institute could ensure improved outcomes are equitable for students, even as strategic approaches may need to vary to benefit students who are high-needs and underserved.

Second, an institute could build capacity for researchers and practitioners to participate in the continuous improvement process, including training in a range of approaches and sharing best practices and lessons learned from those who have implemented continuous improvement in the past.

Third, an institute could help make the case for continuous improvement in education, raise its profile in the sector and generate collective action. This could include providing resources for evaluating the impact of continuous improvement and disseminating critical proof points of how it advances evidence-based practices and student outcomes. It could also include evidence of financial and academic returns on investment compared to other interventions. Over time, the institute could demonstrate the influence of continuous improvement methods on the pace and trajectory of positive change.

Here’s a playbook for launching an Institute for Education Improvement

  • Recognize the need and find a champion to amplify it. Education leaders, including researchers and practitioners, must join forces and resources to raise awareness that continuous improvement, as applied in industry, health care and education in other countries, is critical to large-scale and equitable improvement in the United States.
  • Launch a national demonstration. The philanthropic sector should provide support for the institute to launch with a national demonstration project focused on learning about and applying continuous improvement practices, including free consulting, materials and access to training courses and reviews. Funding could come from one or a combination of education-oriented funders. It might also come from the Institute of Education Sciences as a companion to its array of existing centers (National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, National Center for Education Research, National Center for Education Statistics and National Center for Special Education Research). The institute must not only provide capacity building and support for partnering and attending conferences and meetings; it must evaluate its efforts in terms of implementation and outcomes, and disseminate evidence of its effectiveness to build buy-in among stakeholders.
  • Use success as a launching pad for a sustained effort. The institute must begin with a strategic plan that includes deliberate efforts toward sustainability that go beyond grant funding. This may include a membership model, in which researchers and practitioners would purchase access to different kinds of programming that supplement general support.
  • Allow time. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement has been at work for decades, and there is still work to do to scale and sustain its efforts. In the spirit of continuous improvement itself, the work is never “done.” The Institute for Education Improvement will need time to stand up, roll out and incrementally show impact.

Education has a long history of jumping from one initiative to another. Continuous improvement can offer both dramatic as well as incremental changes. Indeed, an accumulation of incremental changes can contribute, ultimately, to dramatic shifts at scale. Establishing an institute would have significant potential to drive improvements in student outcomes, but it will require time and an unwavering commitment to the process to bear fruit over the long haul.

Allison Crean Davis is a senior adviser at Bellwether Education Partners, focusing on issues related to evaluation and planning, predictive analytics, extended learning opportunities, and Native American education.

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