August 2003   

Vol. 5, No. 8

School district builds on PDSA cycle with ‘Can-do' kids

When Pekin Public Schools 108, a K-8 school district in Illinois, started its quality journey six years ago, little did anyone envision the journey's impact on Pekin's students, teachers, administrators, and parents.

Six years later, Pekin's “Can Do Kids” know the meaning of taking pride in one's work and being able to demonstrate progress in learning. Their teachers are excited about the changes in their students. Parents want to know how they can be involved. Administrators—who use the quality tools and process themselves—watch test scores and other key indicators reflect the genuine improvement in learning that is taking place in their schools and overall learning system.

A video that highlights some of the district's progress conveys all of this enthusiasm, embodied in one small child's response to her own progress. Emily, a kindergartener, can hardly contain herself as she examines a bar chart of word recognition skills that she has attained. She and her teacher point to the progress. “How many words did you recognize [from the standardized kindergarten word list] in September?” she asks. Emily responds, “One.” When the teacher asks her about her word recognition in November, Emily is not able to sit still or keep her hands from dancing as she shouts, “Nineteen!” For the winter cycle, when she can recognize and say all 45 kindergarten words and is ready to go to the first grade word list, Emily fairly bounces from her chair in her excitement.

While not every child will respond so exuberantly to his or her classroom progress, Emily epitomizes what is happening in Pekin and many other schools that are translating quality process and tools into classroom, school, and district improvement steps.

Quality thinking, process, and tools have become “the way to improve things in Pekin 108.” The emphasis on quality process improvement vs. the latest, greatest educational improvement fad has put the focus on educators who know what, why, and how well their students are doing in critical learning areas. As a district, Pekin has become focused on developing an educational system that provides success for all students and their families.

Emily's excitement and focus on her learning did not just happen. Her kindergarten teacher, along with other teachers and principals throughout the district, carefully defines and develops improvement plans that target student learning ownership and enthusiasm. During the first year of quality efforts, the district aligned the district objectives in core content areas to the Illinois State Standards. They wrote the district objectives in educational jargon-free learner statements for students and parents. In addition, they operationally defined the district objectives to provide clarity for instruction.

In the next five years, Pekin District 108 school improvement teams learned how to use the plan-do-study-act (PDSA) improvement cycle and quality tools to define areas of the learning system that need--or as they say in Pekin-- “scream” improvement. Improvement targets include reading comprehension, writing for a variety of purposes, math problem solving, middle school teaming, study skills and many more. School Improvement Teams from each school meet for three days in June to learn about quality efforts that are being implemented throughout the district. Each team then works to define and develop its own improvement plan using the PDSA process and quality tools. The key system requirements that are purposefully designed into each school's PDSA improvement plan are:

  • Data-Driven Goals
  • Professional Learning
  • Cycle Review/Purposefully Sharing
  • Human/Fiscal Resources
  • A step-by-step Process Action Plan

These five key system requirements support educators in developing quality improvement plans that help Emily, and other students in Pekin District 108, to have knowledge of what they are doing well and to take ownership for their efforts.

Data-Driven Goals are the heart of the PDSA Improvement process. To have meaningful data-driven goals, key information must be visually provided to School Improvement Team during the design stage and to all educators involved in the improvement efforts through the process. Using data to drive decision-making has been a challenging process for most educators, including administrators, in Pekin 108. Making data understandable and transferable for developing operational definitions is key. The district has used Excel as a lead data tool, because of its availability, on all staff work stations and teacher's familiarity with the program. Pekin uses a companion software tool with Excel to be able to easily create data sources that track Excel data through a variety of quality tools: control charts, Pareto diagrams, scatter diagrams and others.

Professional Learning and Cycle Review/Purposefully Sharing support being able to determine and share better methods for teaching and learning and system behavioral management. Pekin has developed an extensive system-wide professional learning process that promotes learning and transfer of knowledge among professionals. Key components of the professional learning that are financially supported by the district include three district-wide grade level share sessions; six school PDSA team workdays that support improvement efforts; the Pekin 108 Professional Development Academy, which provides continuing education for certified and non-certified staff at no cost to the educator; and lead teachers at each building who provide ongoing quality and curriculum support to all members of the staff. Scheduling dates for these key components is the first entry on the district master professional learning calendar.

Human and Fiscal Resources make action steps that are determined throughout the PDSA process possible. Putting financial priorities into release time and support for ongoing professional learning into the district and school budgets sends a clear message that quality improvement is not an add-on but the top priority. All district and school budgets are aligned to key improvement goals and fiscal resources are prioritized accordingly.

When all system improvement requirements work together in an aligned educational system, improvement in any area of education will happen. If any of the key system requirements is ignored or eliminated in the improvement process, the results will always be false. (Figure 1: Cultivating Systemic Improvement Ý System Improvement Requirements Chart) Pekin educators have learned many things about true quality improvement in their six-year journey through the use of feedback from staff, students, and the broader community. Using this feedback, staff efforts are improving the educational process for students and family. Pekin District 108 invites you to visit the district at and “Let Us Show You the Learning.”

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