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Lessons on Continuous Improvement for a New School Year

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By Heidi Reed, Director, Professional Learning, and Katie Brackenridge, Partnership Director

For many of us, last year was the hardest year we have ever had as educators. So many twists and turns, so much flexibility, creativity and perseverance, so many hard conversations with so many people! With the end of summer looming and back-to-school season starting, you may be having a wide range of feelings—from anxiety and uncertainty to hope and excitement.

With those feelings comes the opportunity to reflect on what we have learned this past year about how whole-child aligned change happens in schools. If nothing else, in the frequently shifting context of the last few school years, we have all had a crash course in PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycles of continuous improvement. We rushed to meet unforeseen needs and pivoted to new ways of working, often instantly and without hesitation because we knew it was what our schools needed. As we worked to address each successive challenge with speed, adjusting our strategies accordingly, we also learned a lot about leading complex change—what works and what does not. All while watching for telltale signs of improvement. What can we take away from these experiences and proactively apply to how we lead in the new school year?

Turnaround for Children has been working with school and district leaders to implement whole-child design in the midst of many challenges. We have seen our various partners flex, struggle, adapt and succeed in different ways. Through it all, we have made some observations about leadership mindsets and beliefs that support effective, whole-child aligned change and some that hinder it. We hope these lessons offer a helpful starting place when launching any improvement efforts in the new school year.

Here are some leadership beliefs and mindsets we have found to be far less effective while making whole-child aligned change:

  • "There is one right way to solve this problem."
    • Result: Narrow thinking and ineffective solutions
  • "We need the perfect plan before acting."
    • Result: Delayed action and unrealistic plans
  • "We simply need to hold people accountable."
    • Result: Ineffective, compliance-based mandates
  • "People need us to solve their problems for them."
    • Result: Biased solutions that perpetuate problems and deepen inequities
  • "We must see results immediately or it’s not working."
    • Result: Short-lived attempts and initiative fatigue

In contrast, the following leadership beliefs and mindsets are far more effective while making whole-child aligned change:

  • “There is no one right solution.”
    • Result: Innovative solutions with multiple entry points and pathways toward change
  • “We will need to iterate on ideas over time to see what works.”
    • Result: Cycles of "bite-sized" continuous improvement that can start right away and evolve
  • “Collaborating with others is an essential part of change.”
    • Result: Shared commitments, higher levels of engagement, and greater sense of belonging
  • “We need to listen to those closest to the problem.”
    • Result: More equitable solutions with greater chance of getting to the root cause of the problem
  • “Shifting mindsets and building capacity are key to successful change.”
    • Result: Enhanced sense of efficacy and increased knowledge, skill, and mindset development
  • “Looking back on challenges helps us improve.”
    • Increasingly effective action over time and transferable learning

The most exciting thing about these more effective leadership mindsets and beliefs is that they are exactly the kinds of things that educators, particularly education leaders, need to be doing to create more equitable learning conditions. Consider, for example, the importance of “listening to those closest to the problem.” We have learned that gathering perspectives and input from stakeholders—students, families, teachers—isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s actually how we avoid unintended negative consequences, respond to the real contexts people are experiencing, and gather support for co-created ideas and strategies. This level of authentic partnership is one way we create increasingly equitable learning environments for our students.

So as you think about next year, consider the opportunity to:

  1. Take frequent equity pauses
  2. Make more inclusive moves
  3. Save time for capacity-building
  4. Center adult relationships and collaboration

Turnaround for Children’s Toolbox is full of free tools and resources to support the change you want to see in your school or district.

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