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Continuous Improvement "On the Ground": Lessons From Low-Performing Schools

Sun, April 7, 8:00 to 9:30am, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Floor: 800 Level, Room 801A


Numerous recent publications focus on the importance of research-practitioner partnerships, design-based implementation research, and improvement science (Bryk, 2015; Coburn & Penuel, 2016; Gutierrez & Penuel, 2014). These authors argue for close intersections between research and practice in transforming teaching and learning for students. However, the literature to date gives us little information on the day-to-day realities of researchers and practitioners engaging together in improving low performing urban schools, where the infrastructure for continuous improvement is most fragile (Peurach, 2016).

Continuous improvement calls for deep integration of research-based knowledge and learning-by-doing orientations, viewing knowledge as co-constructed by researchers and practitioners (Bryk 2015, Coburn & Penuel, 2016). These partnerships lead to mutual engagement in practice-embedded educational research, which aims for designing research around urgent problems of practice (Snow, 2014). This work requires flexibility in response to contextual demands and careful thought about iterative design (Peurach, 2016). In this paper, we build upon these tenets to examine how a continuous improvement project accommodates contextual features of low performing urban schools.

This continuous improvement project involves a partnership between university researchers and an urban school district with the goal of raising students’ math achievement and increasing teachers’ capacity to improve instruction. The district selected four low performing middle schools for the project. The partnership aimed to improve students’ achievement by supporting teachers’ use of data to inform instruction and by providing curricular and pedagogical supports. In the qualitative research component of this project, we conducted 124 interviews with math teachers, principals, and an instructional coach and approximately 180 hours of observations of teacher team meetings. Data analysis has been ongoing since the inception of the project using MAXQDA qualitative coding software.

Low performing urban schools face a set of infrastructural challenges which must be addressed or at least accounted for in continuous improvement. First, the schools in this project struggled with poor reputations. This affected the availability of substitute teachers, making it difficult for some teachers to attend professional development. The students’ low performance also contributed to teachers’ lack of interest in data use, as they found results disheartening. The project responded by emphasizing instructional strategies first over data use in professional development activities. Resources were also an ongoing struggle. Each year, teachers received layoff notices. While some teachers were hired back, the uncertainty impacted teacher collaboration within schools. The cross-school collaboration activities of the project helped provide some consistency. Another challenge common in urban districts is that teachers often struggled to coordinate multiple demands at once. The project attempted to address this by ensuring that the project coach was involved in district trainings so that she could assist teachers in balancing expectations. Regular meetings of a committed leadership team that included various district leaders and university researchers assisted as well.

Scientific or scholarly significance of the study:
Continuous improvement approaches offer promise for improving educational processes. However, this work needs to closely attend to context, and in particular the broader challenges faced by low performing urban schools and districts.


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