A powerful call to action for educators grappling with inequities exacerbated by COVID, from Kyle Moyer, Director of Continuous Improvement at Marshall Street Initiatives.

Launched in January 2020, the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community Initiative supports a networked improvement community (NIC) of 10 charter management organizations (CMOs) aiming to improve outcomes for their students with disabilities. Race and class have a compounding effect on students in special education that creates an experience gap between these students and their peers. This is why the initiative prioritizes CMOs serving a high proportion of students who are Black, Latinx, or experiencing poverty.

In honor of the final week of Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, this series spotlights early improvement stories from the field, in partnership with technical assistance provider Marshall Street Initiatives. The pilot community’s goal is to systematically improve the way we serve students with disabilities and bring these solutions back to school systems everywhere.

BY KYLE MOYER

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.  — I fell in love with teaching partly because it was more difficult than anything I had ever done before. Early on, I realized the only way to become the teacher I wanted to be was to pay close attention to what was working, for whom, under what conditions, and then commit to a process of ongoing reflection and iteration of my practice. Years before I discovered the formal tools and principles of improvement science, I had already internalized one of its core tenets: the belief in acting, reflecting, and then acting again. I had begun my “improvement journey” without even knowing it. 

Because the process of continual iteration was in service of my driving goal—to become a better teacher more capable of reliably serving the full range of my students’ needs—continuous improvement wasn’t ‘extra’; it was a non-negotiable. Once I articulated this goal for my professional development as an educator, my improvement in the classroom was no longer dependent on permission-seeking or other external factors. As educators in charge of our own classrooms (or schools), we often erect barriers to change because we do not recognize all the resources within our direct locus of control. 

Once I recognized my ability to drive my own learning, I had agency to grow into the teacher I wanted to be. Again, without knowing it, I had internalized another improvement principle: not letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good”, as there would never be a perfect time, a perfect moment, or perfect information. Instead, I just needed to begin. And once I did start formally learning about improvement science, the language and practices made sense because they connected with my beliefs and experiences as an educator and allowed me to do the things I wanted to do more deliberately and rigorously. 

Newcomers to improvement science may feel overwhelmed or turned off by the amount of content, the technical language, and its origins in manufacturing. But at its core, improvement science is simply problem-solving and hypothesis testing, empowering those on the ‘front-lines’. Like all things in life, we get better the more we practice. If I could go back, knowing what I know now, here are a few strategies from improvement science that I would have benefited from using as I was getting started:

  • Unpacking problems I saw by asking “why” several times to get closer to a ‘root cause’ within my locus of control. For example, don’t stop at “students aren’t completing their assignments”. Ask, “Why?” Then ask, “Why?” again (commonly known as 5 Whys). Understanding the root cause is essential for developing the right solution. 
  • Making sure that my goals were SMART and making them public by sharing them with students and other educators. 
  • Filling out this Mad Lib: “if I want to do [goal], then I need to focus on [root cause], and one way to work on that is [change I’m implementing]. 
  • Asking myself the 3 key questions of improvement, over and over:
    • What am I trying to accomplish (i.e. what problem am I trying to solve)?
    • What change can I introduce that will lead to improvement?
    • How will I know if that change is an improvement? 
  •  Asking “what am I trying to learn?” instead of “what data do I need to collect?”, and letting the data naturally come from my desired learning. 
  • Asking “who, what, when, where, how, and why?” about any change I wanted to introduce to the classroom, ensuring each change was clear, specific, and measurable.
  • Pushing myself to make a prediction of what I thought would happen before implementing a change. These predictions helped assess whether each change achieved the desired result.

I’m fortunate to lead a nationwide pilot community of ten school networks collectively serving more than 75,000 students. These exceptional school networks are focused on improving experiences and outcomes for Black, Latinx, and low-income students with disabilities. In our current period of uncertainty, I have been struck by how schools have embraced the foundational mindset of continuous improvement: “just begin”. Across our Networked Improvement Community (NIC), educators have been singularly committed to making decisions in the best interests of students. 

“Newcomers to improvement science may feel overwhelmed by the amount of content, the technical language, and its origins in manufacturing. But at its core, improvement science is simply problem-solving and hypothesis testing. Like all things in life, we get better the more we practice.”

School leaders and teachers  didn’t turn away from the problems posed by COVID or wait for someone else to save the day: they adapted.  They started. They showed up. Like Mastery Charter Schools’ Ms. Grayson, whose daily read-alouds on Facebook video allowed her to continue reaching her students in the early days of COVID school closures, or the lightning-fast work of educators across Ednovate who mobilized to set up virtual school in 3 days and saw 95.6% attendance, these educators thought about what they could do instead of what they couldn’t. And that meant more students received access to education.   

One of the barriers to applying improvement science is that the tools are typically introduced up front and in abstract, which can lead to confusion and frustration. The alternative to “frontloading” improvement science content is to let the value of improvement science present itself naturally and let the demands of the work dictate the right tools. For example, we have found that some school networks are ready to initiate a more formal improvement structure known as Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) earlier than we anticipated. This readiness was the result of narrowing our focus on specific problems and goals, as well as a shared focus on what we were learning from the changes being implemented. As we were discussing what was being learned, a network lead asked, “Is there a way that we can track some of this?” — to which I enthusiastically replied, “Why yes, there is!”. Because we had gotten started on the work, the PDSA was the natural ‘answer’ to a question that was posed, a natural tool to tackle a felt need. And today, because this school network has “just started” the process of tracking what they’re learning, the door is now open to further connections to other formal improvement tools to help develop systems of measures, theories of action, and all of the other wonderful practices central to the work of improvement that will ultimately make more sense because they are grounded in our common experience—and in students’ needs.  

Now more than ever, educators must heed the call to improve. Inequities in the classroom, which have been exacerbated by COVID, can be addressed in many ways; there is no single formula and no ‘perfect’ way to begin. Start small, start simple–just start. The changes we make don’t have to be complex or comprehensive. Just start. Then learn. And adapt. That is the essence of improvement. Anybody can do it. Whether you’re a teacher or district leader, this is not the time to wait for formality. When harried parents and exhausted students are logging in from home, when dogs are barking in the background, when pants are no longer a necessity to attend classes — this is the moment to be authentic, to create spaces for vulnerability in the (virtual) classroom, and to say: “Yes. I can do it. I just need to start.” Every journey worth taking begins with a single step. Educators nationwide are already starting this journey. Let’s not allow formality to get in the way of improvement. For anyone still on the sidelines, the best time to start is now.

Kyle Moyer is Director of Continuous Improvement at Marshall Street Initiatives, a K-12 solutions lab that tackles persistent challenges in American public education. He leads the improvement team that supports a multi-year Networked Improvement Community (NIC) to make dramatic gains for Black, Latinx, and low-income students with disabilities. Learn more about Marshall Street’s work in continuous improvement at marshall.org.