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Getting Real About Continuous Improvement: Spotlight on Dallas ISD

Taking a continuous improvement approach to designing and implementing programs is not a new concept for most school districts. But right now, as many districts are still putting out fires, strategic planning for COVID-recovery funds can feel overwhelming. The idea of setting aside time and resources for continuous improvement is even more so. 

Yet, continuous improvement is an essential part of using ESSER funds strategically to support recovery and redesign.

Simply put: “Set it and forget it” just won’t work. With large-scale learning disruptions and intense scrutiny around using ESSER dollars well, continuous improvement is more important than ever. Districts must try new approaches, implement prototypes quickly, and—perhaps most importantly—measure, communicate, and adjust as they learn what works. 

Extended Learning: The Dallas Proof Point 

One district taking a continuous improvement approach to its ESSER-funded strategy is Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) in Texas. Like many districts, Dallas ISD needed a way to combat both longstanding inequities and the compounding learning disruptions caused by COVID-19. To address these needs, the district bet big on adding more time to the school year—to provide more instructional time for students and more time for teachers to plan targeted support. 

Derek Little, Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning, discusses how Dallas ISD used the pandemic as an opportunity to launch its extended learning plan:

The core "big bet" that emerged was intersession: several weeklong blocks interspersed throughout the school year, providing flexible opportunities for remediation, acceleration, and enrichment to meet students' unique needs and interests. In 2021-22, the district has been piloting an intersession calendar at 41 elementary and middle campuses, representing just under 20% of their schools.

Dallas ISD's clarity of purpose and flexible approach enabled district leaders to incorporate continuous improvement throughout the design and implementation process. That combination paid off:

  • 94% of teachers reported academic growth as a result of the extended learning pilot
  • Smaller average group sizes (13-14 students) that 84% of students say are helping them build stronger relationships with adults in their schools
  • Increased independent and collaborative planning time for more than 1,100 teachers, which has been cited as one of the top three benefits of both calendar models

See examples of Dallas ISD's base calendar and intersession calendar and a closer look at the outcomes data described above:

Base Calendar and Intersession Calendar Outcomes Data

 

 

The Challenge of Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement can and should apply to both launching "big bets" and navigating inevitable road-bumps along the way. But continuous improvement can feel vague and be easier said than done.

Districts across the country are facing common challenges as they try to get continuous improvement efforts off the ground:

  • We don’t have the time to do anything other than execution. 
  • Even if we had the time, we can’t get everyone on board with big changes. 
  • Even if everyone’s on board, we don’t have the data to see what’s working. 
  • Even if we can see what’s working and what’s not, we often feel like the issues that need solving are outside of our control. 

We engaged leaders from a dozen leading districts from across the country and our colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation to identify three keys to success that helped Dallas ISD overcome some of these barriers to launch their extended year calendar.

How Dallas ISD Made it Happen

When done well, a continuous improvement approach to engaging stakeholders can build stronger two-way channels of communication and generate the support needed to sustain positive changes over time. For their intersession pilot, Dallas ISD engaged students, teachers, staff, community members, and school leaders through surveys and focus groups. 

Throughout the engagement process, Dallas ISD ensured that the input was representative of the families their intersession model was designed to serve. This allowed Dallas ISD to set a vision grounded in a deep understanding of students’, parents’, and teachers' experiences. And, with their relentless focus on continuous improvement, Dallas ISD continued to use these challenges of communication to gather feedback from these groups as key pieces of the design changed along the way.  

In addition to this broader stakeholder engagement, Dallas ISD also engaged district administrative leaders both early in the design process and through regular checkpoints, which empowered adjustments to be made along the way. These engagements included: 

  • Representatives from Dallas ISD’s Evaluation and Assessment and Information Technology team - to get data systems and structures set up to answer key questions 
  • Design teams with cross-functional representation from central and school leaders - to interpret and synthesize community input 
  • Implementation leaders from across central office -  to raise and resolve key implementation issues early in the process 

Dallas ISD’s approach to the intersession pilot had another remarkable characteristic: The district leaders made tough and transparent design decisions every step of the way. By grounding decisions in their understanding of desired experiences and messaging their willingness to adapt along the way, the pilot program took shape even as they faced uncertainty about the ultimate destination. The district consistently communicated to schools which pieces of the implementation were decided and which were open to flexibility, which in turn maximized school leader autonomy over their own school’s ultimate vision for intersession. 

Below is just one look at the vision for intersession: a vision that adapted over time as continuous improvement informed adjustments that would positively impact outcomes.

And because intersession occurs multiple times through the course of the school year, continuous improvement played a crucial role in ensuring that aspects of the program that didn't work well were swiftly corrected and mistakes weren’t repeated. The district deliberately tested key aspects of their design with the first few intersession weeks, analyzed early data, engaged their design teams for input and feedback, and made priority changes to the implementation between each of the sessions.  

A common challenge voiced across the country when it comes to continuous improvement is the lack of time in the face of so many competing priorities. For Dallas ISD, the solution was to ensure that there was dedicated capacity aligned to their intersession initiative. That capacity took two main forms: 

1) An in-district leader for the initiative who had sufficient time and access to decision-making power.

The leader responsible for overseeing the intersession pilot was Derek Little, Dallas ISD’s Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning. Derek was able to dedicate 30-50% of his time during the design process to this work. He pulled in team members and others for support as needed, but the work of pushing this forward required significant dedicated time from him. He also had access to primary decision makers along the way so he could resolve key questions and keep the work moving forward.

2) A third-party partner that could take on large pieces of work focused on continuous improvement.

ERS worked with Dallas ISD to offer third-party support at less than 1% of the total cost of the initiative. Support included strategic planning (leveraging research and best practices to inform design decisions), project management (running weekly meetings to develop and manage against the workplan), guidance on stakeholder communication (board and community updates, focus groups, surveys), and the design of a dashboard for metrics measuring success.

Bringing Continuous Improvement to Life

When continuous improvement is done well, it begins with articulating a theory of action and defining your metrics for success, then moves quickly into a repeating cycle of improvement. You collect data to see if the change you made is working, propose solutions, make hard choices, execute, then collect more data and do it all again.

We’ve selected three cycles of improvement from Dallas ISD’s intersession work this year. The examples here are presented much more succinctly than the often-messy reality of real-life continuous improvement. However, they illustrate what the district has been able to accomplish with dedicated capacity and stakeholder engagement, making tough decisions throughout—from project design to implementation and all the adjustments made along the way. 

See three cycles of improvement from Dallas ISD's intersession work:

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