Continuous Improvement


In education, the term continuous improvement refers to any school- or instructional-improvement process that unfolds progressively, that does not have a fixed or predetermined end point, and that is sustained over extended periods of time. The concept also encompasses the general belief that improvement is not something that starts and stops, but it’s something that requires an organizational or professional commitment to an ongoing process of learning, self-reflection, adaptation, and growth. For example, when a school is continuously improving, a variety of small, incremental changes are occurring daily and in ways that cumulatively, over time, affect multiple dimensions of a school or school system.

Generally speaking, the concept of continuous improvement also reflects a tacit recognition that improving the effectiveness of schools and teaching is not only highly complex, but it entails unforeseen challenges, complications, and reversals, as well as steep or prolonged learning curves—among other unavoidable factors—that require a sustained commitment to incremental, ongoing improvements, rather than the execution of rapidly implemented, breakthrough changes that deliver up the desired results in a predictable fashion.

In the view of many educators, continuous improvement also requires schools to have the on-staff knowledge, skills, and expertise needed to improve educational results and sustain improvement over time. For example, if a school’s improvement depends on external organizations, consultants, contracts, and expertise, any realized improvements would probably be neither continuous nor sustainable. In this way, the concept of continuous improvement is related to capacity—the abilities, skills, and expertise of school leaders, teachers, faculties, and staffs—and to action research—informal, in-process research that helps educators develop, in real time, adaptive solutions and improvement strategies. In some cases, a continuous-improvement plan or process will be graphically represented as a circle or ring of arrows—often called a cycle of action or cycle of inquiry—since the process may follow a defined series of steps that are repeated over time.

It should be noted that continuous improvement has become something of a buzzword in education, and the appearance or use of the term does not necessarily mean that a school or school system is actually executing, in any practical or authentic sense, an improvement process that could be accurately labeled “continuous” in the senses described above.

For a related discussion, see systemic reform.