By Christine Schaefer
When Jenks Public Schools in Oklahoma earned a Baldrige Award in 2005, Lisa Muller could take pride for her significant part in its journey of improvement. Since 2000, Muller had been supervising teachers in two departments at Jenks High School, where she also led continuous improvement efforts.
Two years later, Muller became an administrator within the suburban school system. She still serves there today as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. In that role, Muller has helped educators and leaders from organizations around the country understand how to use the Baldrige Excellence Framework (which includes the Education Criteria for Performance Excellence) to support improvements and innovation in all key areas of performance.
Muller will be presenting at the Baldrige Program’s annual Quest for Excellence® Conference in early April. She’ll share how Jenks Public Schools has sustained its continuous improvement journey for over two decades.
Interviewed recently, she explained that behind Jenks’ focus on improvement are “three keys to our commitment: organizational culture, systems-process thinking, and embedded practices.” In her Quest presentation, she plans to discuss components of those keys. “I’ll address our approach to developing a student learning culture, our continuous improvement model, and an overview of our strategic planning and curriculum alignment processes,” she said.
A Culture of Improvement
In describing the focus on continuous improvement in her school system, Muller stressed the organizational culture:
“Continuous improvement is an essential part of the Jenks Public Schools culture. Our district motto is ‘a tradition of excellence with a vision for tomorrow,’ and while we appreciate and honor past accomplishments, we always seek to be a better organization today than we were yesterday. That culture promotes innovation in our approaches to teaching and learning and in service delivery to both our internal and external customers.”
Muller also pointed out that the culture of improvement has helped Jenks respond to growing challenges it has faced in relation to student needs:
“Like most other public schools, the Jenks district has experienced increasing student needs over the last 15 years. Students now are more likely to come to us requiring additional supports for diverse learning needs, facing challenges brought on by living in poverty or having experienced trauma. Viewing these challenges through the lens of continuous improvement encourages us to seek out better ways to meet these needs while maintaining a high standard of academic performance.”
Process Improvement: An Example
As an example of the district’s improvement approach, Muller described how Jenks addressed its challenge of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. “As part of a review of the Workforce portion of the Baldrige Excellence Framework (category 5), we identified an opportunity for improvement involving our onboarding process for new teachers,” she explained. “Feedback from new teachers, instructional coaches, and principals indicated that both the professional development offered for new teachers and the mentoring process during the entry year had areas which could be improved.”
Next, she said, a team made up of the director of professional development, an instructional coach, and a site principal gathered data through surveys and focus group sessions. They then worked with the district’s professional development committee, instructional coaches, principals, and district-level teaching and learning staff to redesign the district’s approach to professional development and coaching to provide smaller, “just-in-time” training for new teachers rather than front-loading information at the beginning of the year.
“The team also led an effort to reinvigorate the district’s mentoring process for teachers, whether they were in their first year of teaching or were experienced teachers who were new to the Jenks district,” Muller said.
The results? “Follow-up surveys and focus group sessions revealed higher levels of satisfaction among teachers who participated in the professional development sessions and the mentoring program,” said Muller. “In addition, we saw a decrease in teacher turnover in the year following the implementation of the new approach. As we near the end of the second year of implementation, we look forward to determining if this trend continues.”
Tips to Support Improvement and Innovation
When asked what best practices she’d recommend to others based on her district’s experience with continuous improvement, Muller provided three tips.
- Make a long-term commitment. “Using the Baldrige Excellence Framework is a proven approach to organizational improvement,” she affirmed. “Proven, but not fast! Organizations choosing this path to improvement and innovation should recognize the need to start small and commit to pursuing this work over time.”She added that her district’s continuous improvement journey began ten years before it received the Baldrige Award, emphasizing that 11 years later, “We’re still improving! Thanks to updates in the Baldrige Excellence Framework, we’ve had many opportunities to stretch ourselves in our efforts to meet the Criteria since we first began using them as an improvement tool.”
- Don’t name it; do it. “Initiatives often fail, but it’s difficult to be opposed to continuous improvement,” said Muller. “Rather than announcing that you are now on a Baldrige journey, focus on weaving continuous improvement in to the day-to-day work or your organization.”
- Look for ways to connect with others who are fellow travelers on this continuous improvement journey. “Prior Baldrige Award recipients are great resources, as are the state [Alliance for Performance Excellence] quality organizations,” said Muller. “It’s very helpful to see how other school districts, hospitals, businesses, or communities have approached implementation of the Baldrige Excellence Framework.”
Benefits of the Baldrige Framework for Education
Muller pointed out that while the education sector has not embraced the Baldrige Excellence Framework at the same pace that the health care sector has over the past decade, organizations in both sectors have faced similar challenges in serving customers with more needs in times of declining state and federal revenue.
“Using the Baldrige Criteria to drive our continuous improvement efforts in the district provided a world-class standard of excellence to strive for and encouraged us to systematically examine our organization with the end goal of improving outcomes for students and other customers,” said Muller. “Over the years, this focus on continuous improvement has allowed us to shift cost savings from process improvement to instructional delivery and to maintain high-quality educational services during ongoing state and federal reductions in education spending.”
To learn more from Muller and other leaders from Baldrige Award recipient organizations in every sector, register now for the 29th Annual Quest for Excellence Conference.