CREDIT: CORE Districts
Students during math class at Fitz Intermediate School in Garden Grove Unified, one of the CORE districts.

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“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

As California begins to roll out support for schools under the new accountability system, educators and policymakers should heed these words from improvement science “guru” William Edwards Deming. In the 1950s, Deming’s systems-approach theory revolutionized industry, first in Japan then in the United States, by engaging all workers in collaborative efforts to solve problems and improve production.

Rick Miller

Since the early 1980s, US health care systems have used improvement science to fine-tune patient care and cut rising costs.

Today we are applying Deming’s vision for continuous improvement to our work across California’s CORE Districts.

While continuous improvement is all the rage in discussions regarding school accountability, more clarity is needed about how to apply it in order to dramatically improve student outcomes. One framework gaining traction as a promising model for helping school districts become continuous improvement organizations are “networked improvement communities.”

These communities employ the principles of improvement science, but work together as a network.

The CORE District’s evolution to a “networked improvement community” began in 2010. Situated in Fresno, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Ana, our districts serve more than a million students and their families, including 22 percent of the state’s socio-economically disadvantaged students, 27 percent of the state’s African-American students and 20 percent of the state’s Latino students.

Educators in the CORE Districts are seizing the opportunity to build upon their years of cross-district networking and data sharing by working as an improvement community, and adopting a disciplined approach to solve a pervasive problem in urban districts.

Our immediate shared goal is to narrow the middle school math performance gap that persists for African-American and Latino students. We landed on this particular problem of practice after considerable systems analyses.

Across the CORE network, achievement gaps for African-American and Latino students are widening, beginning in elementary school and continuing through middle schools. Math achievement in grades 4 through 8 is especially challenging. Academic growth among these student groups also is a major issue.

CORE’s data system gives us a clearer view of the challenge than the state’s new dashboard because of its more nuanced indicators like academic growth. Our student level academic growth model lets educators at schools that are ranked “red” in math on their school dashboard better understand the impact they are having with their students because it factors in specific demographics such as English learner status, disability status and socioeconomic status. It shows educators whether their students grew more or less than what could be expected from students like them in other similar schools from one year to the next. It tells us that ensuring enough high academic growth year after year in schools serving predominantly African-American and Latino youth to significantly narrow the achievement gap across the CORE network will take years.

Our challenge and opportunity are clear. Tens of thousands of African-American and Latino students have the potential to benefit from our efforts to close the math achievement gap. By 2020, across the CORE network we hope to reach our goal of African-American and Latino students improving in math by 44 points, and the math gaps between these students and white and Asian students decreasing by 20 points.

We invested time the first year in building awareness about improvement science at the district level, bringing educators together to learn several times throughout the year, in addition to on-site meetings and virtual sessions.

The network now is expanding and includes school-site improvement teams, with teachers, counselors and principals working directly with district curriculum leaders and data experts across the network.

Improvement science is helping local schools look more closely at conditions in their own schools, generate ideas for change directly from teachers, and implement change ideas quickly. Here is what some of the CORE Districts are doing:

  • In Santa Ana USD, the district recognized that many middle school students are struggling to think conceptually about math. Teachers on improvement teams now are working to change classroom math experiences, with an initial focus on group work. They regularly collect data about group learning experiences, and use that information to introduce changes to how group work is structured and supported in their classrooms.
  • In Los Angeles USD, teachers on improvement teams began their work by conducting “empathy interviews” of their students to better understand their experiences with math. They have begun testing changes around specific instructional areas of focus, such as increasing relevance to students when introducing new topics and improving students’ number sense.
  • In Garden Grove USD, teachers on improvement teams are using student work, formative assessments and collaboration time to assess their teaching strategies and to guide instruction. Educators are not the only people who are highly motivated. In interviews about improvement at one school site, 91 percent of students said they believe they can get better in math if they work hard.

The CORE network is also partnering with Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) to compare what is happening in our districts, which will allow us to identify patterns. Looking at what is happening in diverse settings will help ensure that our improvements will be effective under a variety of conditions, and can be implemented reliably and at scale.

PACE conducted surveys, analyzed field notes from 23 CORE convenings, and conducted interviews that capture insights of more than a hundred educators in the CORE network during the 2016-17 school year. The new brief, “Building System Knowledge for Continuous Improvement: Early Lessons from the CORE Districts” highlights several lessons school leaders can use to refine their own continuous improvement practices. These include:

  • Making sure that improvement teams are made up of leaders from all parts the district — including teachers and site leaders early helps build trust.
  • Remembering that systems analysis is not a one-day event but an extended inquiry process that integrates different types of data, student and teacher perspectives, and builds in cycles of analysis and reflection.
  • Accessing and interpreting different types of data is a powerful and necessary first step in an improvement team’s efforts to build a common understanding about the problem it is trying to address.
  • Teams getting started in continuous improvement benefit from expert facilitation and “learn-by-doing” activities.

We wholeheartedly agree with Michael Fullan’s assertion that “people learn best and most from others doing similar work and getting success.”


Rick Miller is the executive director of the CORE Districts.

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  1. Jenny 5 years ago5 years ago

    Great to hear about how continuous improvement can be effectively implemented on-the-ground. Looking forward to learning how these efforts evolve.