Never Good Enough: Tips for Continuous School Improvement

By Mark A. Smylie

Book_ContinuousImprovement150px.jpgSmylie is the author of the AASA book Continuous School Improvement, published by Corwin Press.

It is difficult to read about educational change these days and not run head-long into the idea of continuous school improvement. The call for CSI can be heard from the pages of practitioner and scholarly publications. It is promoted by professional associations, consultants and academics alike.

CSI is important for several reasons. It is a way for schools to adapt to rapidly changing environments, changing student populations and increasing demands for accountability. It is a way for schools to manage uncertainty and to become more innovative and effective. It is a way for schools to sustain improvement and resist powerful forces of recidivism. Finally, CSI is a way for schools to reduce the need for radical change. But when it is necessary, CSI serves as a model of what might be created through radical change, of what a school might be “transformed” into or “turned around” to become. Research on schools and non-education organizations shows that continuous improvement can promote performance and effectiveness over long periods, especially in times of rapid change and uncertainty.

What Is CSI?

CSI is many things. It is an organizational commitment to ongoing learning and improvement. It is a goal to always get better and an orientation that good is never good enough. CSI is a process of change and a property of school organization. CSI is both a “means” and an “end,” a noun and a verb. It is about continually becoming stronger organizationally and operationally, performing at higher levels, and achieving greater things.

CSI is something that a school attends to all the time. It is accomplished through small, incremental advancements that are deliberate and strategic. CSI focuses on all aspects of the school — everything is “in play” and subject to improvement. CSI is not just the prerogative of administrative leaders. Everyone is involved at one time or another.

The Process of CSI

CSI is driven by a strategic cyclical change process. Many versions of this process can be found in the education literature. Most contain the following steps:

Step 1. Clarify your school’s mission, vision and core values.

Step 2. Determine where your school is with respect to its vision and values, using evidence to identify differences and assess likely reasons for those differences.

Step 3. Set goals and objectives for addressing those differences.

Step 4. Identify strategies to achieve these goals and objectives and develop plans for implementing them (including developing necessary human and material resources).

Step 5. Implement these strategies.

Step 6. Assess their implementation and outcomes, feed information back into the first and second steps, and begin the process again.

Several factors increase the likelihood that this basic process will be effective.

  • Readiness of people and the school organization to support the process.
  • Centrality of student learning to the school’s mission, vision and core values and to the continuous improvement process.
  • Primacy of high quality, relevant and useful data.
  • Inclusiveness of the process, meaning involving everyone at one time or another and focusing on every aspect of the school.
  • Integration of the process into the core functions of the school.

Organizational Design for CSI

The adoption and implementation of a process of CSI is not enough. A school must also be “designed” as a platform for and a driver of continuous improvement. Research points to 10 design principles for schools to follow:

  1. Develop an organizational culture conducive to CSI.
  2. Develop the human capital needed for CSI.
  3. Organize staff members and its work to promote communication, collaboration, interaction with the environment and opportunities for learning and experimentation.
  4. Spread authority throughout the school to promote upward and downward influence.
  5. Cultivate trust among all members of the school community.
  6. Develop accountability and reward systems that motivate participation and contributions toward CSI.
  7. Develop the capacity for generating, analyzing and using data to promote CSI.
  8. Develop fiscal and physical resources needed to support the process of CSI the implementation of strategies generated by it.
  9. Develop management systems to support CSI.
  10. Develop leadership that promotes and supports CSI and that keeps it focused on the school’s mission and core values. Strong administrative leadership and the distribution of leadership work throughout the school are both important.

Learn More
For more on this topic, read the AASA book Continuous School Improvement, published by Corwin Press.

About the Author
Mark A. Smylie, Ph.D., is professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. A former high school teacher, Smylie’s work focuses on school organization, principal and teacher leadership, and change, especially urban school improvement. His e-mail address is smylie@uic.edu.