By Brandy Reeder
The topic of school improvement is not a new one. Lately, though, the study of the science behind improvement efforts is getting increased attention. While working on one of my latest projects, I had an epiphany.
When I was in the classroom, I would spend considerable time working with students to help them understand that we are never finished with our work. Students would bring up a piece of work and exclaim, “I am done,” while handing a paper or project over, thankful to put the work behind them. When I gave them suggestions on how to take the work to the next level, they would become frustrated. I cannot provide any statistical data to support this, but I promise you that when students think they are finished with a piece of work and you send them back to revise it, the pain they experience is very real. As a cultural norm, students do not want to revise. They want to turn it in, check the box, and move on to the next thing that needs doing.
I have come to understand that as adults we are very much the same. We like being done. We enjoy the art of checking the box to signify completion. There is a feeling of finality that accompanies things we complete. For some reason, we feel that once we have finished something, we never need look at or consider it again. It’s over. We say, “I finished it, and that makes me feel great. It is time to move on to the next box that needs checking.”
Improvement science implores us to look at improvements in cycles. What if there were a way to instill a feeling of continual improvement in everyone? What if it were possible to develop a school or district culture with an extreme focus on revising things after a period of time and truly analyzing the relevant results, instead of checking a box and moving away from the improvement effort. Often, it seems, the myriad paperwork that is part of the processes in education tends to be organized in a way that celebrates finality and completion. What if we began to add the steps of tracking data, studying the improvement effort, bringing people back together to collaborate, changing variables, trying and evaluating the new plan, and reflecting on it? What if we taught the art of never being finished? Shouldn’t it be true that if something is important enough to complete a form for, or to meet about, it should eventually turn into something better because of an improvement effort?
One way to begin to shift to this new culture of continual improvement is to study improvement science with collaborative groups of staff members. It would also be beneficial to provide a learning opportunity on the topic of improvement science and run some test improvement cycles to allow everyone the opportunity to grasp the science of improvement. One of the most difficult steps in the cyclical process is planning to make time for evaluation and reflection. By building in time for these steps at the beginning of the improvement process, we show the importance of coming back together to further work on the improvement effort. By characterizing the improvement process as a living, breathing work in action, we can move in the direction of never being done with our efforts. We can continue to grow and make focused efforts to improve specific things.
We all know that part of the reason we seem to struggle in education is because we try to tackle too many things at once, and we really do not take the time to complete improvement cycles. More than likely, most of us are unsure of what the steps are if we truly desire to make improvements in our schools. It is incredibly easy to find existing problems—it takes so little time to jump in and discover them. It is seemingly even easier to “fix” the problem in a quick, knee-jerk manner. Often, this traps us into a perpetual wheel of putting bandages over our issues instead of really fixing them. How many things have you tried to fix lately? How many problems do you see that never really get solved? How many meetings have you been part of that were over the moment you left the room and the topics of were never brought up again?
Maybe if we adjust our thinking about our practices over time and create a new culture of knowing we may just be getting started with improvement efforts, we could develop improvement changes that truly benefit our schools. Maybe if we cultivate the understanding that we are never done, we could sustain focused growth over time that influences us all in the best of ways.
Brandy Reeder is an assistant principal for Davidson County Schools in North Carolina. She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in school administration, and she is currently working on her doctorate in education leadership at Western Carolina University.