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KnowledgeBases > Continuous Improvement in a Rural School District

Initiating and sustaining continuous improvement within a school district takes time, constant focus and consistent leadership. The following is a perspective from one Indiana rural school district that has applied the quality principles of Dr. W. Edwards Deming to its improvement efforts.

The lessons learned from the journey included the following:

Improvement must focus on learning for kids.
For improvement to happen, staff members must grow and develop.
For improvement to happen, district and school leaders must remove the fear of failure.
To improve test scores, the instructional process must improve.
Measurement is essential for achieving improvement.

This account has been divided into the following sections:

  • Getting Started
  • Application to the Local District
  • Involving the School Board
  • Parent Involvement
  • Institutionalizing the Improvement Effort
  • The Results

Getting Started:
While there have been many comprehensive school improvement models available to choose from, one element not always included has been a measurement system. This shortcoming led the Rochester (Indiana) Community Schools superintendent to learn more about the principles employed by Dr. W. Edwards Deming with Japanese and later American manufacturers. Learning about Dr. Deming's concepts led to two realizations: the importance of using data to make good decisions and the role motivation and de-motivation play in continuous improvement. Having learned about Dr. Deming's principles, the superintendent had a passionate desire to chart a course for a K-12 improvement effort. With a system-wide view, the district focused its efforts on improving learning for students while growing and developing the staff. As a result, the school district began a journey of continuous improvement with Dr. Deming's quality principles as a guide.

While he had become intrigued with these principles, the first step was to start training the district's staff members about them and their application in education. The initial training started with a small pilot group of interested teachers participating in a four-day workshop with the aim of spreading the information to other staff members. Over the ensuing three-year period, nearly 80% of the district's staff volunteered to attend one of the four-day workshops. As the initial training was progressing, the district's superintendent came to realize that to sustain the fledgling improvement effort, he needed someone who could relate to the teachers. During this time, he heard educator Dr. Lee Jenkins speak about applying Dr. Deming's principles in the classroom. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent sought out his assistance. Ongoing support of the district's improvement effort was strengthened through Dr. Jenkins' training and assistance to teachers.

Over the previous six years, the direction had been to stay focused on the aim and use data to support decision making. While the training was underway, the state legislature approved legislation establishing an improvement and accountability system for schools. While implementation of this law was on the horizon, there was still denial among staff members that anything would really change. In short, teachers believed the traditional bell curve applied in education would continue. Within the district, staff members felt things were good as they were, so why do anything differently.

Application to the Local District:
Applying Dr. Deming's quality principles within the classroom was a district-wide K-12 effort. Following the initial and follow-up training, the teachers began to see practical ways to measure learning in the classroom and use data to adjust their teaching. The students were involved as well, as they were taught how to track their own data and understand its meaning. Continuous support reinforcing the district's improvement aim and the use of data was provided. Substitute teachers were used to free up teacher time for follow-up coaching and training. Over the previous five years, through constant reinforcement, the district's staff members bought-in to the common direction of continuous improvement.

A key position within the district was the Classroom Connections Coordinator. This role is somewhat different from the traditional curriculum specialists found in most districts. As the title suggests, the aim was to connect classrooms from one grade level to the next in terms of preparing the students for the next year's work. Horizontally and vertically, the coordinator worked to connect teachers with the curriculum. Other work included assisting with teacher mentoring, the teacher hiring process, and help for teachers in acquiring or developing appropriate curriculum materials aligned to the standards. The district's superintendent viewed this role as an important part of the whole improvement effort. The effort involved more than just training. An essential component was recognizing what motivated and de-motivated staff members and students and applying effective management techniques with both the groups to remove the fear of failure.

The effort addressed more than just classroom instruction. The district's hiring process was reviewed as well. With the assistance of Ventures for Excellence, a company specializing in personnel selection and professional development, the district revamped its selection process and trained its staff members in the new process. The process was used in the hiring of all district staff members including support and administrative staff, not just instructional staff.

Involving the School Board:
It is important to involve the school board members in the continuous improvement effort. Education is an important element in fostering their involvement. In this district's case, one of the members was associated with a manufacturing company that made parts for General Motors. Through that connection, the member was familiar with Dr. Deming and his quality principles. As such, he served as a built-in advocate for continuous improvement. Each monthly meeting of the board of education followed an agenda modeled after the Baldrige Education criteria elements. Each meeting started off with the leadership and strategic planning segment under which continuous improvement was discussed. Every other month, the board met with the district's superintendent and building principals to talk about school improvement.

Parent Involvement:
The Internet served as an important connectivity tool for the district's parents. They accessed information about the district as well as their child's performance. Communication with teachers was facilitated via voicemail and email. At the elementary level, the student was included in the traditional parent-teacher conference. In fact, it was the students who drove their conference through showing and explaining their own performance data from their charts! Periodic parent surveys were conducted via the telephone or electronic media. While asking parents what they thought, the district was learning how to act on the feedback received.

Institutionalizing the Improvement Effort:
The improvement effort was nurtured and sustained by the strong support of the incumbent superintendent. In this regard, he recognized the need to identify and develop potential leaders within the district to evolve into key leadership roles so that the continuous improvement effort was sustained and could thrive over the coming years.

The Results
1. The district focused on continuous improvement.
2. The teachers used the district's six early-out days to discuss school improvement issues.
3. The staff had a common language to describe and discuss its improvement efforts.
4. There was growth in achievement scores on the state assessment tests on math at the 3rd, 6th, and 8th grade levels and in Language Arts at the 3rd and 8th grade levels.
5. Based upon student surveys, student enjoyment at the elementary grade level had increased.
6. At the elementary level, the students were very involved, interested, and readily showed their measurement charts.
7. Within the district, student attendance remained an issue of concern.
8. At the high school level, staff members and students had been slower to embrace the continuous improvement concepts; however, there were pockets of positive activity.

Interview with Robert Poffenbarger, Superintendent, Rochester Community Schools, Rochester, Indiana, conducted on February 11, 2004


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