A Different Way to Lead:

System Improvement Leads
8 min readJan 27, 2023

System Improvement Leads Networked Improvement Community (SIL NIC)

In most organizations, leaders are considered the experts. They come up with solutions to problems and ask their employees to implement them. However, this style of leadership no longer meets the complexity and fast-paced nature of today’s world. Instead, leaders must create learning environments that draw on the expertise of everyone in their organizations and value learning through experimentation and failure.

To do this, leaders must think and behave differently. In Transforming Educational Systems Toward Continuous Improvement: A Reflection Guide for K-12 Executive Leaders, Dixon and Palmer identify key dispositions and core practices of such leaders, who they identify as improvement leaders. First, improvement leaders have a growth mindset and see every individual in their organization as a valuable and contributing member with the capacity to learn and develop. Second, they are curious, humble, and vulnerable; they recognize they do not have all the answers, are open to feedback and are willing to be wrong. In addition, these leaders are comfortable with uncertainty, recognizing that learning is a messy process where answers aren’t always readily available. They try out possible answers using scientific reasoning and rely on concrete evidence that something works before scaling it across the organization. Finally, improvement leaders are systems thinkers who see interconnections across different departments and lines of work.

Members of the System Improvement Leads Networked Improvement Community (SIL NIC) have begun to embrace this new approach to leadership. Supported by the SIL, teams of Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), County Offices of Education (COEs) and districts from across the state came together in September 2021 with the shared aim of accelerating learning for the 13,000 students with disabilities they serve. They began their journey focusing on improving the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process.

Teams of administrators, program specialists, and special education teachers from Shasta, San Luis Obispo, West Contra Costa, Sonoma, Irvine, and Clovis started by examining the IEP process in their local contexts. With guidance from the SIL coaches, the teams approached the investigation with a sense of curiosity and an open mind to what they might discover. They also engaged in various activities designed to help leaders see the system from different angles. They created process maps to illuminate how teachers and administrators enacted the IEP process and conducted empathy interviews with teachers, parents and students to hear their thoughts and feelings about IEPs. Finally, they mined data from individual IEP reports to illuminate potential sources of variation in IEP goal documentation and quality.

Through the systems investigation, teams developed both a clearer and more complicated view of the IEP process. It also highlighted for leaders how little they actually knew about the intricacies of their systems, an eye-opening and humbling experience. For example, the IEP process at individual sites varied wildly, leaving teachers to navigate it for themselves. As a result, what was considered a high-quality IEP goal also varied. In addition, some teams were shocked to discover the number of IEPs without documented goals when reviewing individual IEP reports. But more problematic was the fact that they had to review a sample of reports one by one since they couldn’t easily access this data from the Special Education Information System (SEIS). More importantly, it underscored the value and importance of systems-thinking in uncovering the contributing factors to the problem that were previously unseen.

Approaching the work with curiosity and humility has not only provided teams with a better understanding of their systems but has also shifted leaders’ relationships with their colleagues. As one program specialist noted, “I think personally I’ve had a shift in…my thinking around collaboration and working in a group…honestly, like active listening to [teachers] who have perspectives that I may not understand or on the surface may not have valued as much. This work has given me more practice to kind of step back and listen and really try to understand a different perspective…I notice a difference in my professional relationships that have been really positive.”

A SELPA administrator at another district also commented on how the nature of the work has shifted her interactions with teachers and program specialists,

“We have had to build a relationship with them in a different way because we’re having to say…here’s what we’re working on, we really need your help. Here’s where we screwed up, here’s where we did well, we need your lens. It’s been a good partnership not just for growth but for those relationships in the district.”

These comments reflect many of the key dispositions of improvement leaders described above. This includes a growth mindset or newfound appreciation of the knowledge everyone in the organization offers, a humility and vulnerability about what they do and don’t know, and a comfort with the uncertainty that comes with tackling complex problems. Furthermore, members of the network now realize that improving the IEP process is “not about blaming [individuals] but about working together to solve the problem [and] change the system.”

After investigating their local systems, teams began using the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle to try out potential “change ideas” to improve the IEP goal-setting process. These have included a rubric to evaluate the quality of IEP goals and a checklist tied to the IEP process. A PDSA is a mini-experiment used to test ideas out in practice. In the early stages of testing, teams often, but not always, try out ideas on a small scale; for example, one teacher with one student. Here, the goal is to learn about the feasibility of a change idea — can it even be done in practice, does it produce the desired outcome, what are potential challenges that might need to be addressed. Ideas that show promise are then tested on a larger scale to learn how to adapt them to different contexts and then finally how to implement them across the entire system.

This approach runs in direct contrast to how change often happens in education — find a “silver bullet,” a new curriculum or a new software, and then implement it full-scale. However, when they fail, which they often do, there is little understanding of why they didn’t work. The PDSA approach, on the other hand, helps teams learn what works in which contexts and for whom and equally important, what doesn’t. Through this process, organizations learn which changes when implemented actually lead to sustained improvements.

Conducting small-scale experiments using scientific reasoning and evidence represents a major shift in how network members have approached reform efforts in the past. At first, some leaders were impatient with the process, wanting to move to full-scale implementation as quickly as possible. However, they soon discovered how much learning happens with each PDSA and how much more confidence they have in spreading ideas that have been vetted through early testing.

As one assistant of special education commented,

“I have been in special education for 22–23 years. Everybody always has these great ideas and I’ve been part of many teams where those great ideas have been put in place without much inquiry. But many [of these] programs haven’t lasted. What’s exciting to me is all the nitty gritty work that we do [through the PDSAs]. At first, I wondered, ‘Why are we taking so long? Why are you making us do that [cycle] again? Every time we did a PDSA, I would [tell our coach], ‘We just did that but just a little bit different.’ But I totally get it now. Seeing those small improvements we make every week…is super exciting.”

PDSAs also challenge the push for full-scale implementation when they reveal that an idea doesn’t work. For example, when testing a specific change idea and reviewing the data, one team discovered that the idea wasn’t as helpful as they thought it would be. Abandoning the idea, however, wasn’t easy. “It was hard to accept that we thought it was working but that it wasn’t really helping that much. And I think [we’re] so used to just continuing with something because that’s what we’ve done or it looks shiny and new, or people like it. And it’s a huge shift to be in a space where once we get information that something’s not working, it’s okay to just move on and abandon it,” said one team member.

For many teams, the use of data or evidence as part of the PDSAs distinguishes it from other forms of inquiry and reform efforts in general. “There are so many books and leaders on educational reform and change theory, [but] none of it is like this. There are tons of pieces, structures, and theories that this work incorporates, but this stands out as being very different. The differentiating point is those PDSAs…it’s a more structured approach where you’re looking at data [that comes from trying something out in practice], which allows for more disciplined inquiry,” said one program specialist.

Most notably, she contrasted this with how “data” is more commonly used.

“We always talk about making data-based decisions but in reality, we typically don’t. We typically hear from maybe a few stakeholders and they bring some subjective information to the table and then we make decisions about support and professional development based on that.”

For many network members in the SIL NIC, their approach to leadership and other change efforts in their organizations has shifted profoundly. They are looking at their systems with a more critical eye, seeking out the knowledge and expertise of others in their organizations, embracing failure as a valuable part of learning, and testing and vetting ideas with more discipline and rigor. In short, they are becoming the improvement leaders we need to transform our systems to serve all of our students.

Author: Sandra Park, Co-Founder, Improvement Collective

The System Improvement Leads (SIL) project is a collaborative grant project between El Dorado County SELPA, Riverside County SELPA, and West San Gabriel Valley SELPA. The SIL team builds the capacity of COEs, SELPAs and LEAs in continuous improvement, data use and governance, and high leverage practices in order to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. The SIL project is supported by the California Department of Education (CDE) and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE).

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