Healing Our Systems and Making Improvement Stick
Isolated good work isn’t enough. Tools and processes developed jointly build capacity, skill sets and results
BY PATRICIA F. GRECO/School Administrator, March 2019

Patricia Greco brought a new mindset and skillset to staff districtwide in Menomonee Falls, Wis.
Leaders thrive when students and staff improve. Removing barriers to improve learning results is a challenge in most education organizations.

We’ve chased fragmented initiatives in the hope of building a strong context for learning. Initiatives come and go and bleed resources with little impact on learning results or school culture. I lived that chase for years.

My background was in literacy, special education and adult learning. As a principal and central-office administrator, I believed developing strong practices and building a positive culture would lead to the organizational shift needed to create lasting improvement. Yet year after year it wasn’t enough to improve learning results or system culture. I didn’t know it then, but I needed to access the principles, processes and toolset of continuous improvement and evidence-based leadership.

Strong instructional practice is clearly important. It builds capability, confidence and personal will. Every school district has strong teachers, staff members and leaders doing isolated good work. But system success or failure is tied to how the entire system behaves. According to W. Edwards Deming, the patriarch of the total quality management movement, 85 percent of an organization’s failure is rooted in broken systems and processes used to do the work — not the people themselves. Stated simply, good people, with good intent, working in broken systems.

Capacity Building
Improvement means leaders and staff at every level of the organization have the skill and will to reduce hassle within the system by removing barriers for both internal and external stakeholders (students, staff, families, community), by permanently solving problems that interfere with learning and work and by improving system processes and improving results.

Narrowing my doctoral dissertation question, I wanted to learn how to make improvement stick systemwide. How can we build an army of leaders with the capability and capacity to remove barriers, build hope and shift performance? How do we sustain our improvement over time as people change jobs? How do we pace our improvement so we radically improve performance without exhausting our team?

My search for answers to these questions led me outside of educational research and instructional pedagogy. What I learned outside of our field shifted my thinking and my leadership. 

Educators from around the world learn firsthand about continuous improvement during visits held every March and November, hosted by the School District of Menomonee Falls.

Education suffers from what Deming called “terminal uniqueness.” We seek out and learn from those who are just like us, acting on a belief that no one else can understand our challenges. We limit where we look for improvement strategies. Systemic improvement models originated in industry. Hospital systems are digging into improvement in a significant way.

I’ve learned the most from how system thinking, organizational development and change theory, applied originally in business and industry, have improved health care organizations. They need highly skilled staff members who can engage, empathize and work closely with patients and one another.

My work shifted to learning how to build the improvement mindset and skillset for our team. To build capacity for an improving system, we needed to develop our full team. We needed to systematize learning what works for our students, remove barriers and sustain momentum as staff and leaders change. We know we can’t control student experiences outside of school, but we can remove barriers within the system and improve conditions in school for students and staff.

Admitted Failure
I served as superintendent in two districts among the lowest and highest spending in Wisconsin. My improvement mindset and skillset helped me lead the radical improvement needed in both places. In 2011, I was hired as superintendent in Menomonee Falls, a 4,200-student district in southeastern Wisconsin that also serves 10,000 residents in community education and recreation programming. I was well into my improvement learning journey.

The Menomonee Falls schools were painfully typical. We had good leaders and staff. We performed well for some students and poorly for others. Milwaukee Magazine ranked us among the highest-spending underperforming school districts in Wisconsin. Our suspension rates were seven times the state average, predominately for students of color and special education needs.

Within a month of my hiring, I was mailing home the second No Child Left Behind notice to families about their schools being declared “in need of improvement” and informing them of their right to educate their children elsewhere. My challenge was this: We already were committed to strong instructional practice. We used Charlotte Danielson’s evaluation system aligned to professional learning standards, employed instructional coaches, valued low class sizes with academic intervention specialists and invested in professional development.

We were doing good work with good people yet working every day in a system full of hidden barriers. We didn’t know what we didn’t know about our own work behavior. We needed to dig inside our systems, processes and internal measures to create better conditions for learning and leading.

District Progress
The 2018-19 Menomonee Falls School District is fundamentally different. Our schools are now ranked among the best in the state and nation. Suspension rates dropped by 82 percent, and graduation rates are 98 percent. The district earned the Top Workplace Award in the large employer category, and Menomonee Falls was cited among Money magazine’s “The Best Small Cities to Live” due partly to public schools’ performance. Student learning and operational performance have improved dramatically.

Improvement tools and processes help us know where to commit our people and financial resources to benefit student learning and the culture of the system. We invest heavily in the brain power and coaching of our people — it is the only way to really shift capability and capacity. We systemically unleash our full staff in teams to solve our wicked system problems. These are the problems most school districts struggle with year after year.

Improving our processes helped us engage students and staff, redirect student behavior, systemically improve learning results and align resources to our highest priorities. We improved our system. Our focus remains the same: Remove barriers and eliminate hassle so our people can do good work, leading to radically improved processes and results.

Deming was right. Our work systems were creating our barriers. Our mindset, skillset and capacity limited our results. We now have the shared capacity to live our mission as we work to reach our vision. We’ve stopped chasing isolated initiatives. We don’t buy random classroom materials or instructional technology. We focus on the research, develop our people and use the tools of strong educational practice and improvement so we aren’t “doing” a program. We are learning, leading and deploying resources with intention.

Committed Staff
Public education deserves better as a field. Improvement is routinely confused with high-stakes accountability. Absent the tools to really improve, educators and our profession more broadly receive blame for poor performance. Yet as teachers and administrators turn over, our systems create the same results. The cycle repeats.

Continuous improvement builds a mindset and a skillset to remove barriers, to learn what is worth scaling and how to prioritize limited resources without exhausting people. The focus is to build rather than deplete hope for students and adults.

Continuous improvement shifts thinking and behavior. Every staff member commits to service to others and how to apply the plan, do, study, act process to reflect on and improve their work. Students set individual learning goals. Students and staff reflect on progress every 10-15 days. Students share which instructional strategies and classroom routines helped their learning most. Staff meet weekly in grade-level and department teams to discuss student performance on common assessments.

The next cycle of learning is built with student and staff understanding of what works and what needs to be refined. Improvement teams and coaches assess system progress every 45 days, focused on early-warning indicators and how to learn from bright spots. The target is to determine the strategies and processes that improve performance. Onboarding staff is systematic to make sure all new team members have the skills to be successful.

Robust Depictions
Continuous improvement isn’t new. Education leaders have good intentions, but access to the continuous improvement skillset is weak in our field. In Menomonee Falls, we have partnered with passionate, critical partners to build our improvement capability and capacity. They include Janet Pilcher, co-founder of Studer Education; Tony Bryk, president of Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and master black belts from our area technical college.

The series of articles on continuous improvement that follow in this issue of School Administrator are written by colleagues, each addressing in some depth how they are applying robust improvement processes in their work. My thinking and leadership have shifted significantly. We can’t chase, blame or hope our way to improved performance. The stakes remain high. We can develop both the mindset and skillset to make improvement real — not because of high-stakes accountability but because we deserve better.

PAT GRECO, who retired in 2018 as superintendent in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is senior director for thought leadership with Studer Education in Pensacola, Fla. Twitter: @studereducation

Additional Resources
School system leaders interested in continuous improvement can consult the following informational resources recommended by Patricia Greco, former superintendent in Menomonee Falls. Wis.

Episodes focus on excellent organizations and the practices behind their success, hosted by Janet Pilcher of Studer Education.

» The Great Employee Handbook

 How to Succeed with Continuous Improvement: A Primer for Becoming the Best in the World by Joakim Ahlstrom, published by McGraw-Hill Education

 The Leader’s Handbook: A Guide to Inspiring Your People and Managing the Daily Workflow by Peter Scholtes, published by McGraw-Hill

» Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Anthony Bryk, Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow and Paul LeMahieu, published by Harvard Education Publishing

» Maximize Performance by Quint Studer and Janet Pilcher

» Results That Last by Quint Studer

» Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera, published by Odyssean Press

» Baldrige Excellence Framework, guidelines for evaluating an organization’s processes and results produced by the National Institute for Standards and Technology

» “Continuous Improvement in Education,” produced by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teachers

» “Nine Principles of Organizational Excellence,” produced by Studer Education