Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Developing Capacity for Continuous Improvement

Patrick K. Murphy
Superintendent, Arlington (Va.) Public Schools



 Patrick K. Murphy

Not too long ago, I sat in the back of an auditorium filled with educators attending a literacy workshop. Projected on a large screen, was a passage from a high school science text. The presenter switched on a recording of a ninth grader reading the passage aloud. The student struggled through the paragraph, halting to sound out such common words as “information,” “comparison” and “chemical.” It was painful to hear.

Silence filled the room. Facial expressions revealed empathy and distress—we all would admit that this student had “fallen through the cracks.” When the presenter asked for suggestions of what we would do to help this student, hands shot up and a list of solutions quickly filled the flip chart newsprint. All were anxious to roll up their sleeves and help, yet no one suggested addressing the cracks in the system. Instead we fixed our attention on tactics to solve a single challenge.

Educators are natural born optimists driven by a commitment to make things better for students. We focus on tactics and often operate as though tactics alone provide solutions to vexing problems. We’ll bring in families, work with the child after school and assign a reading buddy. The list is long, yet these steps alone are probably not enough. At some level, we all know it.

You see, we needed to process a different, more complex challenge what patterns in the system no longer work? To figure them out, we had to see the forest through the trees. Data mining that forest would lead us to recalibrate our decision-making, putting us on a more likely path to improve his reading.

So, as the new superintendent in a diverse, high-achieving district of over 23,000 students, I decided to re-focus our efforts away from the trees and to the forest. What systems in our district could be refined to make continuous improvement part of the culture of our school division?

Tough Questions

The fact was that, thanks to the work of previous superintendents, our district enjoyed both a reputation and a record of success. Anyone benchmarking our scores against state and national norms would say we were doing quite well. We had a more-than-capable and creative staff working very hard as individuals. Why change?

The answer came from a closer look and some tough questions: Are we willing and able to address the needs of students who are not successful? Are we giving our community the assurances they ask for in terms of wise budgeting, academic decision-making and care of their children? Are we fitting our students into the school program or are we fitting the program to meet our students’ needs? Each of these questions took on great significance, as we thought about the future plan for our district.

We knew these issues were not easily addressed or resolved. They are sizable, complex and systemic. Making a change here and there wouldn’t do it. Attacking these complexities would call for the heavy lifting. We required all hands on deck, singing from the same song sheet, whatever you want to call it, to leverage the power of the collective. Individual efforts alone would no longer be enough. We needed to build capacity in our staff to answer the tough questions before us. That would be our way forward.

Unraveling the Complexity

Maybe it’s time to pause and look at the bigger picture. What are we talking about when we say we want to build staff capacity? What’s missing from what we’re already doing? Will a workshop help?

Building capacity with staff is an ongoing business. It’s a process with no set endpoint. And, like many successful processes, capacity building is grounded in a set of learned procedures, a framework for making decisions. It’s a proactive approach by which staff learns how to address complex systemic issues together and develop a common culture for identifying problems and designing solutions. It’s about developing our ability to sustain focus on the real issues. Here’s one example.

Two years ago, we looked at the senior class at one school and analyzed the system we had in place for those in danger of not graduating in June. We determined that the only safety gaps the current system provided were those traditionally found in high school, such as remediation and summer school. These options were not only costly to the school budget, but came with a great risk. Some students either failed or did not attend summer school. That system wasn’t working. We needed to look at a different way of doing business because the current system was not achieving our goal: some students were not graduating.

So, what if we tinkered with it? What would those adjustments look like? School staff got to work, looking at the data, creating a plan, collecting feedback and making adjustments. The new system they created included credit recovery, second semester schedule changes and increased support for at-risk seniors. We changed schedules, doubled up on the students’ class periods, and reallocated resources. Some folks expressed deep reservations – why change? “It could get worse.” We knew we were taking a big risk, but the risk was a calculated one, built on experience, data and commitment to our students for providing a new path forward. We developed these supports to see if they would help more students graduate. In June, the graduation rate at that school did change for the better and the success of students improved.

So, when looking at systems, what lessons about continuous improvement can we take from this example? The answers are found by appraising the capacities of the staff as they worked to address this issue. There are at least three important qualities in play: principal leadership with the capacity to both focus and analyze the system and support the staff; a staff with the capacity to think and work in non-traditional ways; and a common framework that is coordinated to direct our focus and support the capacity of our work. Let’s move on to talk about that framework.

A Straightforward Approach

It is important to say, that there are many systems and theories to choose from when developing capacity for continuous improvement. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find over a billion and a half hits for “culture of change.” How to choose? We looked for a straightforward one that would easily align with the work of educational staff. Our choice was the PDSA framework, a classic management model that identifies four touch points of focus: Plan, Do, Study and Act (PDSA). These familiar terms comfortably translate to the stages of work that support continuous learning.

Also known as the Deming Wheel, named for Edward Deming, an esteemed American scholar and teacher, the cycle of Plan, Do, Study, Act are repeated over and over as part of a never ending cycle of continuous improvement. The system provides a framework for school staff to learn together and identify what lessons they can glean from data that will lead us to progress. Naming these touch points is an important step as it creates a common vocabulary to guide and develop each person’s focus. This vocabulary allows us to all speak the same language with clear understanding around how to operate in our culture.

Before we go further, let me emphasize that the way we have implemented the PDSA system is not lockstep nor is it a cookie cutter system to follow. There are no boxes to check or regimented forms to complete. It is by no means a sterile structure existing as an add-on to our existing work. We all know schools don’t and won’t work that way.

Instead, we’ve implemented PDSA as a framework to address the tough questions around why some kids are successful and others are not. In our case, we had enviable records of student success. Yet, we saw and continue to see room for improvement. PDSA gives us the process to analyze and to systematically take action to address the status quo. It allows us to get beyond. Here’s another example.

Last summer, a central office meeting with a high school principal included a report showing that 88 percent of students in last year’s senior class at his school were taking either an AP or an IB class. We all agreed that this was impressive data supporting a rigorous academic environment. Yet, in our culture of continuous improvement, we had to ask the tough questions: What about the remaining 12 percent? Who are these students and what can we do to help them be successful? Thus our question: What would it look like to have 100 percent of the seniors at his school to be taking an advanced class?

Following our meeting, the principal returned to his school, gathered up the support team on his staff and went to work. Together, they collected information and formulated a plan. Data helped them identify a list of 45 potential seniors who were not registered for an advanced class, but who would be capable of success with the right support systems in place. Within a couple weeks, the principal spoke with each of the parents of those 45 students, explained the benefits of his recommendation and asked for their support. Would the parents agree to authorize a change in the student’s schedule to include an advanced class? We were hoping that perhaps half of the group would take the challenge. To our amazement, all of the students and parents agreed to take advantage of the opportunity.

It’s a risk and also a great opportunity for students to set a new trajectory for their academic career. And, as we move through this school year, we, along with the 45 students, will be studying and working hard. We’ll be asking questions, looking at data and making adjustments. Will all 45 students be successful? That is the goal. But, by the end of the year, both the students and the staff will know more than they did when they started the year and doors previously closed will be opened.

What we’re doing here is questioning —our previous system looked at 88 percent enrollment in an advanced class and called it successful. In a system of continuous improvement, we are looking for a path to reach more students and have them be successful. We realize that a system can help us achieve this goal of realizing the potential of all students. We have the framework and examples to build the capacity to do so.

“The only way out is through,” reads a motivational banner in that high school principal’s office. That inspiration provides guidance for both students and our staff as purposeful members of an integrated culture of continuous improvement.

Nice Ideas Aren’t Enough

The path to continuous improvement is paved by data. Without data, we can’t ask the right questions that push us forward. It allows us to better define the issues and search for solutions. Ultimately, it forces a distinction between a nice idea and an action plan. The harsh reality is that nice ideas aren’t good enough. Giving kids chocolates and hugs is a nice idea, but in a culture of continuous improvement we need to know more and must act to initiate a change in course. Smart practice always includes a feedback loop that lets us recognize errors and correct them.

Data analysis drives that process. It holds up a mirror to our work and shows where adjustments need to be. It allows us to look at trends and to benchmark progress. Through data we can address, support and stretch students. We can create the building blocks to scaffold to our bigger goals.

To illustrate, let’s look at another example. This one is from an elementary school that targeted the loss of student learning over the summer. What could leaders do to stem that loss? Past efforts included such things as raising parent awareness with messages about the importance of reading, providing students with books to take home over the summer and encouraging all to visit the public libraries.

All of these are nice ideas, but lacked the structure to provide the feedback we needed to analyze what’s happening and how. These tactics could pay off in small ways, but we need something better, particularly for students with the greatest need. That’s why one of our elementary principals asked the question: What interventions will affect a system to maintain or improve reading development during a summer break?

You see, this three-month gap in learning accumulates over the years into a considerable deficit, especially for those students most vulnerable. The five summers between kindergarten and fifth grade result in a year and a half of lost learning. The Phi Delta Kappan reported that the impact of this loss was even more acute for children from lower income families who often begin their formal schooling with an achievement gap. Combine this gap with the summer reading gap and these students can be two or three years behind their more-advantaged peers as they head to middle school (Allington, 2003). With this data and more, the principal and her team got to work.

Their planning resulted in an innovative approach to a book bus we call “Read and Roll.” It’s a portable library of 2,000 donated books that arrived during the summer months in the children’s neighborhoods to the tune of friendly music, a Black Eyed Peas song edited with literary lyrics.

Key to our mobile library was equipping it with books that we had leveled and matched to each student's independent reading level. We entered each student's reading information, based on the end-of year assessments, into a school-wide data base accessible via hand-held scanners. At designated neighborhood stops, computer hot spots allowed students to easily check out books aligned to their individual reading levels. They had choice, access and support to select books they could read with at least 96 percent accuracy. This was important because we knew from our research (Allington, 2012) that students wouldn’t improve their reading ability at all if they read books below an independent level of 90% accuracy.

And, as the bus rolled through the neighborhoods in the summer of 2012, over 150 students came on board, checking out over 1500 books. Last summer, we increased by over 30 percent both the number of students participating and the number of books borrowed.

Others in our community took note, and a national newspaper editorialized about our creative and successful approach to summer literacy. The headline, “Busing in the magic of reading.” Magic indeed. Achievement happens, when we challenge our conventional thinking by transforming a system that obstructs improvement.

Challenging and Energizing Ingenuity

We’ve been at this work for a few years now, and our staff knows to anticipate we’ll ask the tough questions about what propels our continuous improvement. We’re developing the capacity for cognitive focus to help us understand the hidden clues in the patterns of our systems. We’re collectively shifting our focus to the forest and away from the trees to bring about effective systematic change.

When people say, “you’re pressing me, you’re making me think,” I know that they are being challenged and their ingenuity is being super-charged. That’s exactly what we want to happen! Our culture of continuous improvement is fueled by it. Our students depend on it.


Allington, R. and McGill-Franzen, A. (Sept., 2003) "The Impact of Summer Setback on the Reading Achievement Gap." Phi Delta Kappan. 68-75.

Allington, R. and Gabriel, R. (March 2012). “Every Child, Every Day.” Retrieved January 22, 2014 from,-Every-Day.aspx