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Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Updated: Feb 13, 2018

Looking for the next "silver bullet" to quickly turn around your school or district, you won't find it here! What I'm about to describe is at least a three year journey. Over time, a Theory of Action for professional learning and innovation has emerged in the Val Verde Unified School District. The passionate educators who have contributed to this vision are too many to list. However, the key to our success is rooted in an inclusive, co-construction of a brighter future that includes classified association leadership, teacher association leadership, Board member leadership, community leadership, and administrative leadership. Abrasion and diversity of thought were necessary in this process and played out through principled conversations where "we" learned to genuinely listen to one another and express our interests and our fears.


Dr. Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School Professor brilliantly explains the power of diverse teams and co-constructing a bright future that leads to innovation in the video below.

There is a natural "tension" that exists in school organizations between innovation and compliance. At all levels of the organization, there is an awareness that we must pivot to prepare students for their future. At the same time, we are held to state and federal compliance along with accountability. This includes accountability for fiscal solvency, program compliance, and increased student achievement. More importantly, we are fighting assumptions and personal experiences about how our work has been accomplished for the last hundred years. Schools and school districts are very complex systems and the skill-set required for transformation goes beyond technical solutions. In fact, the level of complexity requires an adaptive approach or what some call "double-loop" learning -Craig Weber Conversational Capacity: The Secret To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure is On.


In Val Verde, we have turned to two key authors/researchers to help us think differently about compliance and innovation. Patrick Lencioni wrote a book entitled "The Advantage." Lencioni describes a model that focuses on organizational health. He explains that organizational health trumps all other models of improvement. Moreover, that organizational health serves as a solid foundation for all other initiatives. A few of the key tenets for organizational health are building trust, creating clarity, and over-communicating that clarity throughout the entire organization. We have used the resources from the Table Group in the link above with great success across our organization.


The other key researcher is Michael Fullan. He has written many books on the change process for education. His book "Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems" describes a very useful framework that has been at the core of our recent transformation. His road map is made up of four essential components:

  • Focused direction to build collective purpose

  • Cultivating collaborative cultures while clarifying individual and team roles

  • Deepening learning to accelerate improvement and foster innovation

  • Securing accountability from the inside out

Spending time on each element of his framework has supported our work in Val Verde. While each component is necessary, one overarching theme has emerged. It is the concept of increasing organizational and personal responsibility in each employee for the success of each and every student in Val Verde.


In the past, we have been driven through accountability. While accountability is necessary, a shift in perspective towards responsibility places student success in a different light. In other words, in an environment where external accountability drives our work, we can simply blame " the system" for our failures. Conversely, when we work in an environment that takes collective responsibility for the success of each student, we are left with holding up a mirror.


In its simplest form, our Theory of Action for innovation and professional development in the Val Verde Unified School District includes the following:

  1. Create a culture of trust, support, inclusion, and psychological safety for the adults in the system.

  2. Agree on academic and behavioral supports coupled with psychological safety that allows each student to flourish (equity and access).

  3. Have high expectations for each student to pursue their journey towards college and career readiness.

Below is a visual that explains our system. It is meant to be read from the bottom up.

Undoubtedly, this is a complex system with lots of moving parts. In fact, there are structures that underpin each bullet on the graphic above. My desire is to show how all the pieces of the broader system fit together and have the ability to adapt to the changing needs of our students and staff. To further explain, I invite you to watch this short video presentation.

Again, our Theory of Action for innovation and professional development in the Val Verde Unified School District includes the following: trust and psychological safety for staff and students, equity and access for students, and a culture of high expectations. While there are many ways to approach change, this system is working in Val Verde. Moreover, it is being allowed to work due to Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Most importantly, your school or district needs to fully embrace your framework for increased student achievement. Building trust and psychological safety for staff and students is a key foundation for the work that lies ahead.


Here's some of the key performance indicators that have improved in Val Verde. First, we are a California school district that has not been identified for Differentiated Assistance. According to the new California Dashboard, our graduation rate is 96.3% and is blue. Our students are making growth on the standards, and our suspension rates have held steady. At the same time, we were designated as one of the nation's first Google Reference Districts for our work in implementing a 1:1 initiative that is focused on STEAM and the 4Cs. While we are excited by our current status, we are not satisfied. We know there is much work that remains. But, we are confident that our collective spirit of continuous improvement and our culture will lead us to a brighter future. One where all of our students are Future Ready!


In an effort to support our Future Ready work, we engaged our community to create the Val Verde Portrait of a Graduate

The Portrait of a Graduate serves as a north star and reminds us that we are responsible for providing the skills and knowledge that are required for Val Verde students to assume their rightful place in the 21st century global workforce.

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