Using a Continuous Improvement Approach to Help More High School Students Succeed 

by Martha Abele Mac Iver and Robert Balfanz

As students returned to in-person learning this past fall after months of remote schooling, high school educators have faced particular challenges. Half of the students at these schools were personally unknown to faculty. Both ninth and tenth graders were entering the building and meeting teachers face-to-face for the first time. 
During remote schooling, high school students became used to being off camera and doing much of their learning asynchronously at a time of their choosing. Now they have returned to even more (COVID-related) rules and regulations at school than they had experienced before the pandemic. Rates of chronic absenteeism and course failure had increased dramatically during virtual learning in both middle grades and high school, and initial reports indicate this continued as the new face-to-face school year began. High schools are faced with providing even more credit-recovery opportunities than they had previously.1 Those opportunities had traditionally been offered in an online setting—one that had not resulted in success for most students during the pandemic. How can school leaders confront these additional challenges, as a new coronavirus variant continues to rock the world they hoped would be returning to normal?

It is essential for high school leaders to pursue a continuous improvement approach using evidence-based strategies as a starting point. First used in automobile manufacturing and more recently in health care, continuous improvement approaches in education leverage the practical wisdom of stakeholders closest to the classroom and school, as Anthony Bryk and colleagues illustrate in their book, Learning to Improve. This approach seeks to get at root causes and tests how well specific change ideas work in improving system functioning and interim outcomes associated with the student outcomes they are trying to improve. What are some particular steps school leaders could take using a continuous improvement approach to address chronic absenteeism and course failure? 
One of the most important things we have learned over the years is that it is essential to act in a timely way to systematically identify which students are showing signs of struggle in attendance or course performance so school staff can intervene early enough to make a difference. The pandemic has increased the number of students who are struggling, making it more important than ever for schools to be able to figure out which students need which supports, and when. In our book, Continuous Improvement in High Schools, we point out that some schools may already have early warning systems in place, and need to work on improving how well they ensure that interventions and follow-up discussions occur. Others may need to improve the reliability of the systems that identify struggling students. In either case, using a continuous improvement approach provides a means for schools to develop solutions that will work in their circumstances. This approach involves: 1) identifying where current systems are not working, 2) selecting and rapidly testing a high-leverage change idea, 3) observing the results of the change, and 4) then deciding (based on the results) whether to continue using this change idea, modify it, or try something else.

Schools learned more about engaging families during the pandemic, and this is particularly important learning for middle and high schools to leverage. Survey evidence from principals had shown that middle and high schools were notably less likely than elementary schools to offer opportunities for parental engagement before COVID. 2 Other evidence indicated that high school teachers have been much less likely than their elementary counterparts to consider their professional responsibility to include communicating with families about students’ academic progress. Parents of high school students say they do not receive enough communication from the school. 3 Experimental evidence showed that interventions employing text messaging to parents about academic progress or encouragement and information about how to access online parent portals make a significant difference in student outcomes. 4 Based on this, taking steps to implement more systematic communication with families, particularly those whose students are showing signs of struggling academically, is a promising direction to take. Our book takes readers through examples of the kind of Plan – Do – Study – Act cycles of inquiry high schools can undertake to develop, test, and refine family engagement interventions. 

Based on feedback from students about what the everyday school experience is like for them, school leaders may need to take a careful look at how instruction can become more engaging. Our observations in scores of classrooms over the years has convinced us there is much work to be done to more effectively engage students in learning. Evidence has shown that giving students a greater sense of autonomy and choice can make a huge difference. Focusing on mastery goals and helping students monitor their own progress has potential for improved student outcomes as well. Using a cycle of inquiry process that helps them measure impact, school staff can try out particular change ideas—such as giving students choices in their daily assignments or giving them tools to monitor their progress regularly. Even simple changes in instructional practice can potentially make a difference for student learning outcomes. 

While many, if not most, high school students disengaged emphatically from online learning, one lesson from the pandemic was that some students actually did better in an online environment that eliminated the stressful in-person interactions with peers that make school such a negative experience for some. School leaders might leverage this to engage in piloting alternative instructional delivery formats for students who succeed better in such environments. This may provide greater opportunities for success for students who need more flexible schedules because of work or childcare needs, as well as for those who learn better without the distractions or stresses found in school classrooms and other common spaces.

Another issue that the pandemic highlighted was the need for schools to more effectively address the social and emotional learning (SEL) needs of their students. While this includes specific mental health needs, it also involves more general SEL areas such as giving students a purpose in their learning and increasing their growth mindsets.

As high school leasers move forward in a world that will inevitably be different after thee pandemic we have endured, that can leverage the learning gained though this experience no on would have freely chosen. Taking a continuous improvement approach will help them to confront both the pre-existing challenges and the new ones that have emerged.


Taylor, Kate, and Amelia Nierenberg. 2021. “The Dangers of Failing Grades.” New York Times.

U.S. Department of Education. (2021). Parental involvement in U.S. publlic schools in 2017-18: Data point. Retrieved from

Brenner, M. & Quirk, A. (2020). One size does not fit all: Analyzing different approaches to family-school communication. Washington, D.C: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

Bergman, P. (2016). Technology adoption in education: Usage, spillovers and student achievement (CESifo No. 6101). Retrieved from

Bergman, P. (2019). Nudging technology use: Descriptive and experimental evidence from school information systems. Education Finance and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1162/edfp_a_00291

Byrk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press.

About the Authors

Martha Abele Mac Iver is an associate research professor in the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University and affiliated with the Center for Social Organization of Schools and the Everyone Graduates Center.

Robert Balfanz is a research professor at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and director of the Everyone Graduates Center.

They are the authors of Continuous Improvement in High Schools: Helping More Students Succeed(Harvard Education Press, 2021).