GSE joins Carnegie iLead initiative to innovate school improvement

A 100-year-old business concept from Japan promises effective school improvement practices in the US.

Susan Carlile leading an Improvement Science exercise

The GSE and 10 other educational entities have been selected for a new project launched by the Carnegie Foundation to advance education. The Improvement Leadership Education and Development (iLEAD) initiative uses Improvement Science (IS) to help schools solve problems using collaborative continuous improvement processes. GSE’s program leaders will learn how to apply IS concepts to their work in the educational leadership courses.

For the past three years, Professors Pat Burk, Deborah Peterson, and Susan Carlile were involved in IS training and, along with former Dean Randy Hitz, have been looking for ways to bring the practice into the GSE. The Carnegie iLEAD program will provide opportunity for five individuals to attend four face-to-face meetings to learn continuous improvement strategies toward the dual goals of equity and excellence.

Since 2015, ELP faculty have participated in a Networked Improvement Committee (NIC) at the Carnegie Foundation that looked at problems of practice in the school administration field. NICs are a central tenet of the IS program and provide access to other similarly focused groups across the country who will also contribute to the knowledge pool. Technology is a helpful component for these efforts, and webinars are common. By collaborating on the same common problem, NICs are able to accelerate solutions.

In order to participate in iLEAD, the GSE needed a school district partner. Susan Carlile and Tania McKey have teamed with Newberg School District, which is already a strong proponent of IS. The three Newberg School District staff are Stafford Boyd, Director of Title Programs, Professional Development and Secondary Teaching and Learning, Cassandra Thonstad, Assistant Principal at Mountain View Middle School. Lisa Agular, Principal at WL Henry Elementary School in Hillsboro, and adjunct PSU professor, also joined the team. All three are former graduates of GSE Educational Leadership programs.

“We are mutually committed to embracing IS as a promising school improvement strategy in Oregon,” said Susan Carlile, who is the lead on the project. “One of the most captivating aspects for me is that the problem of practice is arrived at by the people who are making the change. It is the teachers who identify the goal, investigate potential solutions, collect and interpret data, and determine to continue or adjust based on results.” This process creates powerful support for meaningful change in the schools.

In addition to the iLEAD project with Newberg School District, the ELP department, with the full support of Chair Candyce Reynolds, is now integrating IS into the IAL program. Deborah Peterson, Tania McKey, and Susan Carlile offer a three-credit IS course that spans fall, winter, and spring and teaches future school administrators to collaborate with their teaching staff in solving a problem of practice using the IS process. In fall term, each creates a fishbone* chart for a personal improvement project in their life. In winter term, they work as a team, similar to a NIC, to solve a problem of practice in education. By spring term, students work with teacher volunteers who use an equity lens to identify a school-based problem of practice and make changes using the IS process. The goal of the class is for future education leaders to have the tools, the skills, and the practical experience guiding improvement cycles when they assume their roles as vice principals, principals, or central office administrators.

History of Improvement Science

The concept of IS dates to the 1920s and was proliferated by American engineer William Edwards Deming (1900–1993). It caught on in postwar Japan in the 1950s and ’60s as a way to solve manufacturing problems and improve production by having all workers collaborate to solve issues. Components of this process drifted across the Pacific Ocean in the 1960s as a business tool and became widely used in American industry to improve products and processes in this country.

The IS movement continued to grow, and by the 1980s had expanded into the health care industry as medical professionals sought to improve patient care and rising costs. Dr. Don Berwick is the founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and a leading proponent of IS in the health care industry.

Today there are key people in education who are also advocates of the IS process. Anthony S. Bryk, Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul LeMahieu co-wrote the book Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better (February 2015). The text uses key ideas from IS to demonstrate how disciplined inquiry, usage of data, and networked teams can create successful interventions for schools using the teachers and staff who are directly involved in the school’s operations.

The six core principles of Improvement Science are:

  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 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.

“While we are in the initial stages of implementing IS, we are encouraged by our students’ enthusiastic embrace of this improvement strategy,” said Susan Carlile.

Comments from our students include:

“The process allowed for all voices to be heard using the fishbone and protocols. This was a moment when we all were united and established a sense of purpose and importance as we listened to each voice in response to the problem of practice, analyzing possible barriers.”

“I definitely see myself using IS as a strategy to effect change when I have my own school.”

Sample list of projects GSE students have already undertaken using IS:

  • Impact of Latina/o family involvement
  • District counseling programs
  • Culturally responsive instructional practices in classrooms
  • Anti-bullying efforts at the classroom and school levels
  • Attendance
  • Classroom discipline support for beginning teachers

*Sample fishbone, or Ishikawa diagram

The Ishikawa diagram, or fishbone diagram, is typically used during brainstorming to capture ideas that could help solve a problem.


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