Watch the two-minute video for a quick overview:

Almost every organization faces an improvement imperative: businesses must grow their profits and market penetration, hospitals strive for better patient outcomes, and nonprofits look to increase their impact. K–12 school systems are no exception.

Every principal and superintendent accepts their role knowing that they will be expected to make their schools better. For education leaders, improvement often means boosting state test scores, raising graduation rates, increasing college enrollments, lowering student discipline incidents, implementing new STEM programs, or updating their technology and facilities.

When it comes to meeting the improvement imperative, education leaders have no shortage of options to pursue—new curricula, technologies, pedagogies, and programs abound. Historically, most K–12 improvement efforts consist of a top-down approach to implement a solution de jour across a school or district.

Unfortunately, however, improvement efforts in education routinely break down because they don’t account for the complex interdependencies across a school system that get in the way of faithful implementation. For example, a professional development initiative intent on training teachers to differentiate their instruction may run into staffing policies that don’t afford teachers the time they need to plan differentiated lessons, and enrollment practices that make the range of student needs in a given classroom unmanageable. As another example, an effort to adopt restorative justice discipline practices may lose steam when it clashes with mainstay classroom management strategies honed to maximize instructional minutes.

In the midst of these perpetual struggles, some K–12 schools and districts across the country have recently begun pursuing an approach to improvement with a history that dates back to automobile manufacturing in the 1950s: a set of methods collectively referred to as “continuous improvement.” Continuous improvement is not a solution. Rather, it’s an approach for diagnosing the systemic causes of problems, identifying possible solutions, and then shaping and refining those solutions through feedback and iteration.

By putting the principles of continuous improvement into practice, a number of school systems have seen compelling results. For example, the Fresno Unified School District used continuous improvement to increase the number of students applying to nonlocal colleges by over 50%. Summit Public Schools used continuous improvement to decrease the test score performance gap between its English learners and non-English learners by 50%. Networks of schools using continuous improvement in both Connecticut and Chicago saw their graduation rates increase by roughly 10%. Many other schools participating in improvement networks have seen similar results.

Yet the compelling rationale and convincing examples that back continuous improvement alone will not ensure its adoption across K–12 schools. Whenever school system leaders seek improvement, their choices about how to improve depend on context.

This paper aims to help the proponents of continuous improvement approaches better understand how context shapes choices about how to improve.

The insights offered here come from looking at improvement efforts through the lens of the Jobs to Be Done Theory. This theory starts with a simple premise: all people—school system leaders included—strive to make progress in their lives. Progress, however, does not happen devoid of context. People seek progress within a set of circumstances, and those circumstances shape their decisions. A “job” represents a common desire for progress plus the circumstances in which that desire frequently arises. Just as people hire contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people “hire” different types of products, services, programs, and initiatives to help them make progress when “jobs” arise in their lives.

To identify the Jobs to Be Done that cause leaders to adopt various approaches to improvement, we interviewed school system leaders in the summer of 2020 about their recent improvement efforts. We hope that these insights help funders, policymakers, intermediaries, and school system leaders pursue the improvement imperative with more predictable success.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.