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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Continuous Improvement

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #125

Several years ago, my friend and colleague, Christina Dixon, and I developed a Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership (PIL) course for the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center titled Leading District-wide Continuous Improvement. Dr. Dixon is an educational advisor, consultant, and coach. She collaborates with the University of Pittsburgh, A+ Schools, WestEd, the Improvement Collective, the Fresno County Office of Education, and the Carnegie Foundation. The content of the course is based on a document that Christina co-authored with Simone Palmer for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Transforming Educational Systems Toward Continuous Improvement.

Dr. Jay Scott, Dr. Tom Butler, and I have the privilege of facilitating the PIL course for the Bensalem Township School District leadership team. We found the talented Bensalem Township leadership team to be committed to continuous improvement, and they embrace the three key components of successful change.

1. Value People

  • Respect every individual.

  • Believe that everyone’s contribution matters.

  • Understand people’s needs and support them to do their best work.

2. Value Learning

  • Have a learner’s mindset.

  • Be a lead learner.

3. Think Systemically

  • Thinking systemically includes seeing the big picture and understanding the relationships and interdependencies within and between processes and systems.

  • When engaging in system-wide continuous improvement, the district is the unit of change, and district-level outcomes take precedence in driving everyone’s work.

  • All of the districts’ functions integrate to contribute to achieving the vision for improving student achievement.

  • System design determines system outcomes. Leaders are responsible for designing the systems that drive the proper outcomes for their organization.

The course describes three categories, key dispositions, core practices, and levers of transformation that are necessary to successfully engage in continuous improvement practices. Within each category, research has identified the vital elements of transformational leadership. The categories and elements are as follows:

1. Key Dispositions

  • Growth Mindset

  • Curiosity, Humility, and Vulnerability

  • Welcoming Uncertainty

  • Scientific Reasoning

  • Systems Thinking

2. Core Practices

  • Live the Improvement Principles

  • Get Proximate to the Work

  • Demonstrate Compassion

  • Be a Lead Learner

3. Levers of Transformation

  • Promote Radical Alignment

  • Build an Improvement Culture

  • Develop Everyone’s Improvement Capabilities

  • Invest in Improved Infrastructure

Essential to the practice of continuous improvement are the six core principles identified by the Carnegie Foundation.

1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered: It starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.

2. Variation in performance is the core problem to address: The critical issue is not what works but rather what works, for whom, and under what set of conditions. Aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale.

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes: It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypotheses for change public and clear.

4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure: Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if the change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organizations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

5. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry: Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.

6. Accelerate improvements through networked communities: Embrace the wisdom of crowds. We can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone.

We are grateful to the Bensalem Township School District and educational leaders nationwide working to provide students with outstanding learning experiences. Educational leaders who embrace a vision of success for all students and act on that vision are engaged in leading continuous improvement. If you want to learn more about Leading District-wide continuous improvement, email me (


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