Framework 5: Improvement Cycles

Improvement Cycles support the purposeful process of change. Implementation teams use improvement cycles to change on purpose. Improvement cycles are based on the Plan, Do, Study, Act process.

While there are many methods of improvement, two that can promote purposeful building and district level implementation are the Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycles (PDSA) and Policy-Practice Communication Cycles. 

Many times teachers and staff experience similar, consistent barriers to implementing an evidence-based innovation as intended.  These barriers need to be solved at a systems level. Implementation Teams employ PDSA cycles in order to intentionally identify, problem solve and hopefully alleviate these barriers. 

The PDSA cycles consists of four phases:  

  • Plan — identify barriers or challenges, using data whenever possible, and specify the plan to move programs or innovations forward as well as the outcomes that will be monitored.
  • Do — carry out the strategies or plan as specified to address the challenges,
  • Study — use the measures identified during the planning phase to assess and track progress, and
  • Act — make changes to the next iteration of the plan to improve implementation.

PDSA cycles are one strategy Implementation Teams can use to make meaningful changes, alleviate barriers, embed solutions, and achieve expected outcomes. 

Not all challenges can be solved by the Implementation Team. At times solutions require support from leadership, policy makers or other key partners of the system.  Implementation Teams can help develop and then use practice-policy communication cycles to promote necessary changes needed at higher levels of the system to support new practices. Communication cycles are bi-directional forms of communication between policy and practice that are facilitated by the Teams. While we often see policy enacted that is intended to impact practice, the other side of the cycle (feedback to policymakers on intended and unintended impact at the practice level) is overlooked. Implementation Teams are responsible for promoting, developing, and negotiating the mechanisms for such communication and then using the agreed upon protocols. This bi-directional communication is critical to ensuring that policymakers understand the impact of their efforts and that those on the front line have the support they need.   Connecting policy to practice can help reduce barriers to high-fidelity implementation. There must be good policy to enable good practice. However, practice must also inform policy. It is important that these communication linkages are conceptualized and fostered in Exploration, and formalized, supported, and improved in the Installation, Initial Implementation and Full Implementation stages. 

But ask again, why do we purposefully use Improvement Cycles?

Effective practice to policy communication cycles must be embedded in the system’s way of work to ensure that change happens on purpose. New practices do not fare well in existing organizational structures and systems. Too often, effective innovations are changed to fit the system, rather than the existing system changing to support the effective innovations.

As an example, the figure here depicts the role that implementation teams can play in promoting policy to practice feedback cycles and linked communication in an education system. Such communication helps to ensure that procedures, structures and policies all serve to support quality implementation and student outcomes.

An sample diagram of a Practice-Policy Communication Cycle


Activity 1.5
Getting started with Improvement Cycles

Review these diagrams and consider the following questions. We encourage you to review and discuss these with your team and/or to write down your responses.

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