The K–12 Improvement Imperative

Writing for the Christensen Institute, authors Thomas Arnett and Bob Moesta present the findings of a study designed to help the proponents of continuous improvement approaches better understand how context shapes choices about how to improve. 

Every principal and superintendent accepts their role knowing that they will be expected to make their schools better. For education leaders, improvement often means boosting state test scores, raising graduation rates, increasing college enrollments, lowering student discipline incidents, implementing new STEM programs, or updating technology and facilities.

Whenever school system leaders seek improvement, their choices about how to improve depend on context.

The insights offered in Arnett and Moesta’s paper come from looking at improvement efforts through the lens of the Jobs to Be Done Theory. This theory starts with a simple premise: all people—school system leaders included—strive to make progress in their lives. Progress, however, does not happen devoid of context. People seek progress within a set of circumstances, and those circumstances shape their decisions. A “job” represents a common desire for progress plus the circumstances in which that desire frequently arises. Just as people hire contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people “hire” different types of products, services, programs, and initiatives to help them make progress when “jobs” arise in their lives.

The authors identify three specific Jobs to Be Done that cause leaders to adopt various approaches to improvement. They include:

  1. Correct: I have a specific problem. Help me fix it.
  2. Coordinate: I’m frustrated. Help me rally others to move the needle.
  3. Reorient: We can’t do what we did in the past. Help us find a new way as a school system.

Insights from this study may help funders, policymakers, intermediaries, and school system leaders pursue a continuous improvement approach with more predictable success.

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