Applying Improvement Science to the Classroom
A superintendent sees master problem solvers across the district leading to a relentless pursuit of excellence
BY COREY GOLLA/School Administrator, March 2019

Corey Golla has continued the district on a continuous improvement path since assuming the Menomonee Falls superintendency last year.
School districts across the country are populated with skilled teachers and administrators who care deeply about their students. They serve a profession committed to helping young people reach their goals. They share a collective wealth of knowledge of what works best for learning.

Despite all of this potential and isolated successes, our schools rarely live up to educators’ aspirations. Public criticism pales in comparison to our own disappointment. We know there must be a better way.

In the School District of Menomonee Falls, a Milwaukee, Wis., suburb, we believe the better way is through a collective commitment to continuous improvement. The core principles of improvement science are built on a foundation of collaborative inquiry and trust that engages everyone — students, teachers, support staff, school board members and administrators. In its simplest form, teams work together to test ideas to solve defined problems that stand between students and their learning goals.

Through improvement science and Studer Education’s Evidenced-Based Leadership, our district has imagined and built a system to harness collective knowledge and wisdom. We focus on improving our schools to pave the way for our students. We’ve learned through our journey and continue to refine our approach.

Health Care’s Application
Vision and inspiration are important. The crumb trail through the history of improvement science can be a cold read. It began in manufacturing with W. Edwards Deming inspiring the transformation of the auto industry, leading to Toyota’s association with quality and efficiency.

More interesting to us and our partners is its evolution into health care. The service sector improvement model can be more easily referenced as we apply the principles in education. We have been inspired by the framework of Quint Studer, a special education teacher turned businessman who established a health care consultancy that later bridged into education.

It was through that latter work with Studer Education, beginning about eight years ago, that Menomonee Falls began down a formal path of continuous improvement. With Studer, led by Janet Pilcher, and a research team at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, under the direction of Tony Bryk, as our key partners, we committed to improvement in all corners of the school district. Our students and staff have benefitted.

Our work in Menomonee Falls has been unique in this respect: We engage everyone in the process. This “all in” approach was aggressive, and implementation remains a work in progress. It resulted in a common vision, shared language and full team ownership across the system. Our mantra is this: Everyone is a master problem solver empowered to improve the conditions and results of their work. Improvement engages all students and teachers.

Continuous Progress
Our vision of personalized learning includes student voice in the learning and improvement process. When teachers join our system, they are trained and coached through an eight-step process to embed the principles into their classroom:

» Learning standards posted in student language;

Learning standards and expectations are posted in student language in the Menomonee Falls schools, where students design their class mission statements.

» Goals for shared learning taught and posted;

» Strategy bank posted and taught to share a common language;

» Classroom mission co-designed by students and teachers to guide respect and behavior;

» Plan the next learning cycle together;

» Do the plan by deploying the learning strategies with high impact;

» Study by reflecting on individual and class results compared to the goal; and

» Act by co-designing the next 10- to 15-day learning cycle.

This classroom improvement framework guides the progress of students and staff. The PDSA cycles are repeated every 10-15 days, creating the most intense application of improvement. We expect teachers to collaborate with students in the plan-do-study-act phases. The short learning cycles generate shared understanding of the learning targets around the most important outcomes, a clear method of monitoring progress and a partnership identifying the strategies that work best for students in the next learning cycle.

Students and teachers clearly articulate what “teachers will do” and “what students will do” to achieve the goal. In this phase, students and teachers must talk explicitly about specific learning strategies to move from superficial activities to actual strategy. We want the learning strategies of Robert Marzano, John Hattie and AVID evident in their strategy banks guiding reflection and action.

Powerful learning leads to student graduates who are armed with improvement strategies that will further their academic and workplace careers.

The improvement learning cycles build student and teacher reflection into the classroom routine. As a team, they identify what worked well in the process and where they could improve in the next cycle.

Our students across the system can speak fluently about the learning strategies that work most effectively for them or are most applicable to the task at hand. They are skilled goal setters who understand the value of frequent reflection equipped with the power to guide their own progress. Students engage in learning cycles designed to fit the age, content and style of the skilled educators in our district, from students in our early primary schools through graduation. The result is a learning relationship that bonds teachers and students and improves results.

Jeff Stollenwerk, an 8th-grade social studies teacher in Menomonee Falls, says the process has transformed his classes. “I am more aware of my students’ learning styles and needs and how they change throughout the school year, and my students are more aware of their own learning styles and how to create action steps to manage their own learning,” he says.

Even more significantly, students are equipped for a life of continued learning.

Problem Solvers
We invest heavily in the development of our staff to sustain improvement. New teachers engage in a well-designed training program, supported by learning improvement specialists as they master the framework. While the coaching is personalized to fit the needs of the teacher, staff typically demonstrate mastery in two or three years. An adult learning framework, similar to a rubric, is used to make the stages toward mastery explicit as teachers progress. Improvement coaches work continuously with individuals and teams to keep the PDSA cycles alive and relevant in each classroom.

Collaboration is an expectation. We develop all employees to contribute to high-functioning teams. Every staff member begins her or his work with us in “service excellence” training led by our most positive team members from all sectors. These team members share our mission and expectations regarding professionalism, respect, communication, teamwork and accountability.

Team excellence training reinforces our principles of how we treat each other as we work together, and prepares colleagues to engage in critical and constructive conversations.

Casey Ulrich, who taught high school math for four years in Menomonee Falls, says he found sharing across teams happening increasingly, “and this constant desire for improving all of our students together has made a big impact on scores and work ethic.”

Robust Collaboration
The PDSA cycle is mirrored in all improvement work systemwide. We learned the more robust improvement tools through quality training at nearby Waukesha County Technical College. These tools are applied to more complex problems, such as chronic absenteeism among some high school students.

All leaders, including our instructional coaches and curriculum leaders, are trained in quality toolsets — particularly project management, situational appraisal and decision analysis, and, for our most robust problems, DMAIC or define, measure, analyze, improve, control. Team leaders apply the tools most applicable to their work.

Recently, we have applied these tools to identify the root cause of the gender gap identified in high school grades in English courses. Teachers have used DMAIC to substantially accelerate learning for students who enter high school struggling in math. This has led to an increase in the number of students on pace to complete Algebra II, a document-ed gateway course to higher learning.

Also, we have applied situational appraisal tools (known as Kepner-Tregoe) to better understand the learning barriers confronting our middle school special education population. This has led to immediate actions for improvement.

A Continuing Journey
We are on the right path for our continuous improvement. Staff feedback and engagement fuels the ongoing process. Our staff members are trusted and empowered to lead their respective improvement efforts.

As a result, Menomonee Falls is removing barriers to learning that have persisted for years. We celebrate being one of 17 high schools in Wisconsin recognized for improving access and success in our Advanced Placement program. Our students are engaged, which is reflected in their achievement.

Just as importantly, we have clarity as to where our opportunities for improvement reside and a shared commitment to excellence, one student at a time. We are inspired master problem solvers.

If you are interested in learning more and seeing the model in person, Menomonee Falls hosts two site visits each year. Details can be found at

COREY GOLLA is superintendent of the School District of Menomonee Falls in Menomonee, Wis. Twitter: @craygolla