Continuous Improvement in Practice

Heather J. Hough
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University
Jason Willis
Alicia Grunow
Improvement Collective
Sylvia Kwon
Public Profit
Laura Steen Mulfinger
University of Southern California
Sandra Park
Improvement Collective


Calls for “continuous improvement” in California’s K-12 education system are central to current discussions about school improvement in the state. Yet, definitions of continuous improvement vary, and knowledge of what continuous improvement looks like in practice is limited. To advance the conversation, this brief helps to define continuous improvement both in theory and in practice. As part of this work, we discuss the extent to which California policymakers and practitioners are engaged in continuous improvement efforts, how they define continuous improvement, and the barriers and gaps in support for this work. First, the brief presents a review of the literature on continuous improvement from education and from other fields. Based on this review, the authors identify several distinguishing characteristics of continuous improvement organizations. These characteristics include shared, evidence-based processes and practices; shared responsibilities, organizational goals and priorities; a common, shared improvement methodology; a data infrastructure that provides feedback tied to organizational outcomes; a culture and discipline of learning from failures and near-failures; and leadership practices that build and sustain a continuous improvement culture. Next, the brief includes findings from interviews with leaders from state education agencies, county offices of education, school districts, technical assistance providers, education advocacy organizations, and education associations across California. Echoing the literature review, education leaders interviewed for the brief acknowledged that continuous improvement requires a change in culture, while also noting the importance of capacity building at all levels of the system in order to engage in continuous improvement at scale. They also viewed data use as central to continuous improvement. However, the education leaders interviewed for the brief also identified several barriers to the implementation of continuous improvement. These barriers include (1) a lack of clarity about what continuous improvement look like in practice and how to get there, (2) insufficient strategies and supports to grow internal capacity for continuous improvement, (3) difficulty prioritizing continuous improvement in a resource-constrained environment, and (4) variation in the availability and use of data to support continuous improvement. The literature review and research findings presented in the brief were used to facilitate discussions about how to move California’s K-12 education system towards continuous improvement at scale during a stakeholder convening in early October 2017. This foundational work has made clear that implementing continuous improvement system-wide requires more than seeing its value and referring to it as a goal for the system. Rather, it requires a shift in mindset and in culture, a substantial investment of time and resources, and persistent effort over time to build organizations where everyone in the system can see how their work impacts student outcomes and can engage in investigations of their daily work to continually improve their practices, processes, and ultimately student outcomes.

Suggested citationHough, H. J., Willis, J., Grunow, A., Krausen, K., Kwon, S., Steen Mulfinger, L., & Park, S. (2017, November). Continuous improvement in practice [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.