Promoting Equity with Improvement Science

This blog is part of CSSP’s six-part #Evidence4Equity series, where we invite evaluators, researchers, and foundation leaders to elaborate further on some of the issues raised by the publication, Placing Equity Concerns at the Center of Knowledge Development, and to share their reflections on how they are intentionally focusing on equity in knowledge development.

Join us on the blog monthly for a new entry diving deeper into these issues and be sure to join the conversation online using #Evidence4Equity to keep the conversation going.


Throughout my career, I have been asked, how can the field of education better address longstanding patterns of inequity in educational out­comes? That is, what can we do about any place where our educational institutions systematically foreclose opportunities to some children—where predictable failures occur year after year after year?

Drawing on the six core principles of improvement, it all starts by explicitly identifying disparities as the problem to solve. Next, we investigate the root causes of these failures as understood in the lived experiences of all involved. Along this journey, we are systems think­ers, exploring how some of the things we take for granted in our work may act to sustain the disparities that trouble us so greatly.

Some keys to ensuring success in our work include:

  • Shifting from a program focus (we need to add something new, some new idea or service) to a problem-solving focus (we target a specific disparity in outcomes and we keep iterating through improvement research cycles until we achieve our aim). Implementing new programs, even those supported by rigorous evidence, does not assure that we will actually resolve the systematic inequities we aim to address.
  • Including the voices of the people who are most directly impacted into the conversation and seeking to understand the dynamics of this disparity through the eyes, mindsets, and emotions of all involved. Truly listening to these voices is at the core of improve­ment.
  • Focusing on variation in performance to discern predictable failures such as the ones seen year after year in our educational systems and in other systems. We now have a vast body of evidence, some of it dating back more than 40 years, about variation in program effects as a function of who takes up and actually uses so-called “effective interventions.” Starting with Sesame Street in the early 1970s, we learned that those who watched more gained more. But the children of low income that Sesame Street most aspired to help tended to watch less. Disparities of this sort have appeared across many different interventions. Those whom we most want to benefit from new programs are often least likely to do so.

Yet we never stop and really ask, “Why does this happen? What might we do differently?” Rather than thinking about this as a core design problem to attack, we tacitly adopt a blaming-the-victim stance. Somehow it is about the parents, the community, the children, or maybe the teachers rather than our failures to address and correct systemic imbalances.  

  • Hiking up stream to see where problems might be first emerging and fixing them at the source before they change in character, expand in size, demoralize those involved, and, consequently, become much harder to solve. Rather than waiting for failure and then trying to remediate with, at best, modest success, we need to address issues as they first emerge.

The Six Core Principles of Improvement

  1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered. It starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.
  2. Variationin performance is the core problem to address. The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works, for whom, and under what set of conditions. Aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale.
  3. See the systemthat produces the current outcomes. It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypotheses for change public and clear.
  4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure. Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organizations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.
  5. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry. Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA)to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.
  6. Accelerate improvements through networked communities. Embrace the wisdom of crowds. We can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone.

For more information, please go to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.