Continuous Improvement in Education Settings: A Literature Review

Michael S. Garet, Sara Mitrano, Ryan Eisner, Julie Kochanek, Kathleen T. Jones, Maggi Ibis, and Scott Estrada, AIR

Over the last decade, educators have become increasingly interested in continuous improvement (CI) as a strategy for reform. CI requires practitioners to engage in iterative cycles of inquiry by defining local problems of practice, testing potential interventions, studying the results, and improving upon those interventions. This method of improvement stands in contrast to approaches focused on adopting “off the shelf” research-based practices or evidence-based interventions.

Although there is a large literature outlining the rationale for CI and specifying methods and tools that support its use, the empirical literature on CI in education is far smaller and less easily accessible. For this literature review, AIR set out to locate empirical studies that described the process of implementing CI, as well as studies that analyzed the conditions that foster or limit its use. We identified 34 empirical studies that met our final eligibility criteria.

Our results suggest that continuous improvement is a promising avenue for reform, but much more work is necessary to assemble evidence on the use of iterative inquiry cycles to improve student outcomes. One challenge is that this approach to CI is a local effort embedded in practice, not an approach that involves researchers testing the efficacy of standardized interventions. To build an evidence base for CI, some CI efforts must be undertaken within a systematic research framework that not only supports local learning by the CI team, but also supports drawing generalizable conclusions about CI by researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

Key Findings

  • Almost all of the reviewed sources were case studies and small in scope. Most studies reported on CI work undertaken by a single school, district, or another organizational unit for a 1- or 2-year time period.
  • Although iterative inquiry cycles are a fundamental component of CI, relatively few studies provided detailed data on the implementation of cycles.
  • There is some evidence that engaging in CI may be associated with improved student outcomes, but the evidence is based on weak research designs. Only three studies employed a comparison group, and no study was based on random assignment.
  • The studies suggest that implementing CI is facilitated by supportive leadership, opportunities to collaborate, and the provision of professional development. But these conclusions are based largely on perceptions of the CI participants. Only one study explicitly compared conditions associated with high- and low-implementing CI teams.