When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) was already two years into a full-scale initiative to redesign their school planning processes and adjust schooling models for more than 30,000 enrolled students. Similarly to many districts across the country, the abrupt school shutdown seemed to upend all of their progress and force quick adjustments in the face of uncertainty and rapid change.
Without a blueprint for success, the district quickly recognized the importance of continuous improvement as they implemented new schooling models. Through ongoing cycles of inquiry, TPS placed big bets, tracked those bets, and made data-informed adjustments along the way.
Since then, the district has relentlessly focused on strengthening its continuous improvement approach, not only as a way of navigating the pandemic, but also as the very backbone of their vision and strategic planning.
At its core, TPS’ continuous improvement work builds off of other familiar approaches from the field of education: It engages a diverse community of stakeholders, follows a general “plan-do-study-act” structure, and allows for adjustments based on new learnings.
However, TPS' approach rests on three core pillars that make it unique:
TPS’ approach to continuous improvement wasn’t built overnight—nor is it complete. It has taken multiple years and was made possible only through the commitment of hundreds of practitioners working collaboratively to cultivate a culture dedicated to improvement.
The district’s effort resulted in something profound and long-lasting: a new model of continuous improvement that uses key catalytic levers to connect the district’s vision with a strong strategic plan and sustainable implementation.
During the summer of 2022, Joseph Trawick-Smith, Partner at ERS; Caitlin Richard, Director of District Strategy and Implementation at TPS; and Amanda Barnard, Manager of Continuous Improvement at TPS, sat down to talk about TPS’ continuous improvement work.
The team discussed their ongoing approach to continuous improvement, the successes they’ve experienced so far, and ways they’re thinking about evolving their approach in the future.
The conversation revealed the importance of bridging the divide between strategy and school-level implementation—a gap that often prevents districts from making progress on improvement initiatives. Below, we share four important practices that TPS put into place to help build a more integrated and sustainable continuous improvement approach.
Cross-functional collaboration has been a cornerstone of TPS’ continuous improvement approach since it was launched in 2018. Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, the district built on their early successes by establishing two collaborative teams tasked with connecting strategy design and implementation support for schools:
Comprising senior leaders with a wealth of academic content expertise, the Strategy Team plays a central role in TPS’ continuous improvement approach. Within this team are Strategy Owners, district-designated individuals responsible for defining TPS’ improvement strategies and establishing expectations for school-level implementation.
Network Support Teams
Network Support Teams were introduced in 2019 to help schools implement district strategies. They are cross-departmental teams designed to break down silos and create customized, coherent, and service-oriented support for school leaders of around 10 to 12 schools. Network Support Teams work alongside the Strategy Team, with some members holding spots on both groups to facilitate collaboration. They work directly with individual school leaders and report back to the Strategy Team on successes, areas in need of improvement, and trends.
Each Network Support Team is composed of key roles, including:
Network Support Teams work with both schools and strategists—with some Strategy Team members directly managing Network Support Team members—so they’re able to integrate strategic planning and school implementation into the same arc of support. TPS even established an internal third-party team to help coordinate and manage the complexity of this cross-functionality.
By organizing the Strategy Team and Network Support Teams around common working structures (such as shared goals, collaborative weekly meetings, a shared planning calendar, and more), TPS does what many districts struggle to do: combine academic expertise with leadership coaching to create a single, cohesive model of school support. One end-of-year survey found that school leaders reported a 100% satisfaction rate on the high-quality support they received from their Network Support Teams.
TPS knew that their continuous improvement approach would only gain traction if it directly supported the district’s strategic plan. To make this happen, they invested significant time developing detailed logic models, which serve as blueprints for effectively implementing strategies. By clearly defining and measuring each component, district leaders are better equipped to guide schools through strategy-focused continuous improvement cycles.
The team focused on three key areas:
#1 | Conceptualizing
When constructing their frameworks and metrics, TPS had a central goal: to help school leaders understand, effectively implement, and continuously adjust a set of strategies. With that goal in mind, they created a logic model that outlined:
This simple structure helps everyone understand what implementation should look like so they can diagnose and address implementation challenges throughout the year.
#2 | Pressure Testing
After the team developed the initial frameworks, TPS hosted a day-long planning retreat they dubbed “Metricpalooza.” During this retreat, Network Support Teams, Strategy Owners, and ILDs worked side by side to review and test the frameworks that the Strategy Owners designed. School leaders also played a central role, sharing insights from the execution-level perspective.
The teams used “Metricpalooza” as a way to iterate on their initial plans and narrow down the metrics they would focus on going forward. They prioritized metrics that they deemed most essential to the work, either because they were integral to the success of one key strategy or because they would have a compounded impact on multiple different strategies.
#3 | Implementing
As the district finalized their frameworks during “Metricpalooza,” they also identified metrics to help track and measure the quality of school-level implementation. The teams incorporated each metric into a web-based data shield, which is a dashboard that houses data from every school in the district. Using the data shield, school leaders can track their progress; see the inputs, outputs, and outcomes from initiatives across the district; and access trends across elementary, middle, or high schools.
Example screenshots from TPS' data shield. Click the image to view full-size.
The metrics that TPS developed and tested during “Metricpalooza” offered valuable input into school-level improvement cycles. But the district learned early on that tracking more data didn’t always lead to better insight. With that in mind, TPS chose to combine a narrow set of mission-critical metrics with qualitative data collected directly from the staff. This approach allowed them to improve the lived experience of school staff while working efficiently on district-wide strategies.
TPS knew that the best way to set up their continuous improvement strategies for success would be to integrate them into existing school support structures. They took three actions to accomplish this:
#1 | Created a Calendar of Continuous Improvement Milestones
Before the school year began, TPS constructed a detailed calendar of milestones to help guide improvement cycles:
#2 | Regularly Reinforced Continuous Improvement Mindset
Senior leadership continually reinforced the importance of continuous improvement work, through day-to-day communication and by directly reviewing data. For example, school leaders met quarterly with the Deputy Superintendent and the Chief Academic Officer to discuss the “what” (how implementation was going), the “so what,” (what impact the strategies were meant to have), and the “now what” (how to use learnings to improve going forward). This consistent practice helped create a sense of legitimacy for their work and held leaders accountable to making measurable change.
#3 | Helped School Leaders Make Meaning From the Data
Network Support Teams made data review easier by organizing each school’s data shield prior to school leadership meetings. This allowed teams to maximize every minute of their check-ins with school leaders and identify trends across the data.
These three actions, among others, enabled districts to effectively support schools through the beginning phases of implementation. With mindful teams and organized data, TPS was able to take initial steps with intentionality and efficiently address challenges as they occurred.
During quarterly reflections, school leaders and ILDs examined data trends and identified challenges, which ranged from something as simple as communicating expectations to something more complex, such as ongoing staffing shortages.
Rather than viewing these as only school-level challenges, TPS empowered leaders to identify the system-level conditions—those that often fall outside of school leaders’ control—that also contribute. In response to widespread staffing shortages, for example, school leaders helped identify three areas where the district office could improve:
TPS also drew connections between continuous improvement trends and each school’s improvement plan for the following year, making both system- and site-level decisions to solve problems. As one example, some schools were focused on improving literacy education through classroom observations. When they found that some leaders were having difficulty finding time to complete this work, they considered creating a role using their site-level budget to free up more time. They also worked on calibrating observation scoring across all schools to create alignment between network support and school leader observation.
Drawing these throughlines helped schools organize their people, time, and money around the right improvement priorities. It also ensured that each school’s planning process was an organic part of their leadership priorities—not just a compliance exercise.
Before acting on the insights they gathered, the team applied “institutional patience,” where they took time to fully digest and understand the school leaders’ input. This practice enabled them to truly listen to the school leaders and find the right time to implement any needed strategy adjustments.
Even with clearly defined logic models and strategies, TPS knows that schools will need significant implementation support to deliver results. For the 2023 school year, Strategy Owners have crafted detailed 30-day checklists for schools that outline steps for launching strategies, provide clear expectations for leaders, and offer a way to assess the volume of demands placed on school leaders.
TPS has also set aside ample time to reflect on and learn from their work so far. Because the timing matters, they will be preserving time for leadership reflection as data becomes available, rather than on an arbitrary schedule. They have also created “synthesis weeks” right after reflective periods, during which school leaders can talk about their data together and brainstorm solutions to common challenges.
All of these adjustments—small and large—illustrate a willingness to be agile and flexible, to learn from their collective progress, and to iterate on their processes. It’s these qualities, as well as their unwavering commitment to their word, that will no doubt help TPS, their schools, and their students succeed.