Journal of Educational Change

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 465–494 | Cite as

Continuous improvement in the public school context: Understanding how educators respond to plan–do–study–act cycles

  • Ariel Tichnor-Wagner
  • John Wachen
  • Marisa Cannata
  • Lora Cohen-Vogel


The last 5 years have witnessed growing support amongst government institutions and educational foundations for applying continuous improvement research (CIR) in school settings. CIR responds to the challenge of implementing effective educational innovations at scale by working with practitioners in local contexts to understand “what works, for whom, and under what conditions.” CIR works to achieve system improvement through the use of plan–do–study–act (PDSA) cycles, which are multiple tests of small changes. This comparative case study of two urban school districts examined how innovation design teams took up PDSA in their work to improve high school student outcomes, and their perceptions of PDSA as an approach to innovation development, adaptation, and implementation. Findings revealed both possibilities and challenges for implementing PDSA. Nearly all participants reported the value in PDSA, and participants pointed to connections to previous experiences and PDSA training as helping to build capacity. However, we found mixed levels of enthusiasm for actually conducting PDSA cycles, and capacity constraints regarding time and data collection.


School improvement Continuous improvement research School districts 



The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305E100030 to Vanderbilt University. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ariel Tichnor-Wagner
    • 1
  • John Wachen
    • 2
  • Marisa Cannata
    • 3
  • Lora Cohen-Vogel
    • 2
  1. 1.ASCDAlexandriaUSA
  2. 2.University of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA
  3. 3.Vanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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