Building Systems Knowledge for Continuous Improvement

Early lessons from the CORE districts
Michelle Nayfack
California Education Partners
Vicki Park
San Diego State University
Heather J. Hough
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University
Larkin Willis
Learning Policy Institute


In California, recent policy shifts have created a high degree of local control with the expectation that school districts will think differently about school and district improvement. However, many districts lack the individual expertise and organizational capacity to support these changes at scale. In large part, this is due to a lack of a shared understanding of the routines, structures, and supports needed for school systems to develop and implement change ideas that dramatically improve student outcomes.

In this policy report, we take a first step towards clarifying what continuous improvement activities can look like in school districts. More specifically, the lessons that we share focus on the early efforts of one network of California school districts—the CORE districts—that is collectively tackling a shared problem of practice by applying a particular continuous improvement model known as a Networked Improvement Community (NIC). The CORE districts are in the beginning stages of their work to close the math achievement gap in Grades 4–8 for their African American and Hispanic/Latino students. They spent their first year as a NIC building a complete understanding of their school systems, identifying a shared problem of practice, and then engaging in structured systems analysis activities that relied heavily on bringing together a wide range of district staff to collect and interpret a variety of data sources from different parts of the organization. The objective was to begin the process of continuous improvement by exploring their school systems holistically, considering all the possible causes of the math achievement gaps, and then eventually using their systems analysis data to identify specific change ideas to test over the coming years.

The first section of the report briefly explains the concept of continuous improvement and its application in Networked Improvement Communities. Next, we detail four lessons learned from the work of the CORE Improvement Community (CIC):

  1. Effective systems analysis starts with creating an improvement team that is set up for success.
  2. The systems analysis process enables district leaders to revise, refine, and expand their initial theories about the reasons behind their problem of practice.
  3. Accessing and interpreting different types of data are critical to building a complete understanding of a problem of practice.
  4. Teams getting started in continuous improvement benefit from expert facilitation and learn-by-doing activities.

We conclude with a description of challenges and roadblocks identified by CIC members and recommendations for educators looking to incorporate continuous improvement principles into their work. For all those educational leaders who are interested in accelerating system improvement and learning from the work of the CIC, we encourage reflection and investment in the systems analysis process. Our findings suggest that, while challenging, investing in building the capacity to implement continuous improvement strategies can lead to powerful insights and new ways of engaging in reform.

Suggested citationNayfack, M., Park, V., Hough, H. J., & Willis, L. (2017, November). Building systems of knowledge for continuous improvement: Early lessons from the CORE Districts [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.