Policy brief

Learning and Practicing Continuous Improvement

Lessons from the CORE Districts
Learning and Practicing
H. Alix Gallagher
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University
Benjamin W. Cottingham
Policy Analysis for California Education, Stanford University


The education sector is embracing the hope that continuous improvement will lead to more beneficial student outcomes than standards-based reform and other approaches to policies and practice in prior decades. This report examines attempts in California to realize the potential of continuous improvement in some of the state’s largest districts. Policy Analysis for California Education and the CORE Districts, a nonprofit collaborative of eight urban school districts, have been engaged in a research-practice partnership since 2015. This report presents lessons learned from their collaboration in 2018-19, and is accompanied by three case studies that provide a more in-depth discussion of exemplary practices in two districts and one school.

The report opens by briefly defining continuous improvement and tracing the history of the CORE Districts. It then focuses on two questions that are central if California’s schools and districts are to realize the potential of continuous improvement. Through interviews, observations of professional learning events and team meetings, and analysis of artifacts created through learning events and improvement work, PACE gleaned six lessons:

  • What do we know about how to support educators in learning continuous improvement?
    • Lesson 1: Embedding continuous improvement processes into the existing norms of schools is complex work; approaches to teaching it need to include cycles of practice and feedback to help educators apply complicated ideas in their own local contexts.
    • Lesson 2: Participating in a series of workshops rarely provides people the depth of knowledge necessary to lead or teach continuous improvement.
    • Lesson 3: Improvement teams need access to content area expertise as well as continuous improvement expertise.
  • What conditions support continuous improvement in districts and schools?
    • Lesson 4: Leaders used four key leadership moves to build an organization in which continuous improvement can thrive.
    • Lesson 5: Districts can take deliberate steps to build a culture conducive to continuous improvement.
    • Lesson 6: Structures and processes to break down silos and share information across organizational units do not inherently create continuous improvement, but they are foundational components that can support or hinder its progress.

The report and related policy brief explain these lessons and implications for broader continuous work in California and beyond. The three related cases provide more detail on two districts and one school within CORE:

Suggested citationGallagher, H. A., & Cottingham, B. W. (2019, October). Learning and practicing continuous improvement: Lessons from the CORE Districts [Policy brief, report]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/learning-and-practicing-continuous-improvement-lessons-core-districts