The challenge of improving an underperforming school is a classic example of an ill-structured problem — a complex challenge with no clear predetermined or procedural way to overcome it and with many different causes and many potential solutions.

In 2015, the U.S. Congress recognized the complex nature of school and student performance and devolved the authority to define accountability systems from the U.S. Department of Education to state education agencies through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

This change holds states and local school districts accountable for assessing student and school needs and choosing and implementing interventions that best fit the local context, with requirement of application of evidence-based practices in the most challenged schools.

Under ESSA, K-12 schools can benefit significantly from the support of human performance improvement practitioners. While ESSA requires a local needs analysis, this analysis is likely to fall short of the type of performance gap analysis, cause and requirement analysis, job task analysis and performance factors analysis performed by HPI practitioners.

Looking through an HPI lens, four systemic factors contribute to the need for school improvement:

Marketplace factors: Poverty, transiency of students, lack of family support for students, high percentages of immigrants for whom English is a second language, lack of supply of diverse teachers and leaders to mirror student populations, disconnects between teacher and leader preparation programs and the reality of schools, increased demand for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills in the workplace, needs for articulation between schools, post-secondary institutions and employers.

Workplace factors: Allocation and alignment of time, resources, teacher and leader talent to student needs; time and leadership to create collaborative, engaging school cultures in which teacher leadership and team-based learning and development support improved teaching and learning; implementation of performance management systems that work effectively in school contexts; challenges of aligning the work of school governance to support student needs; lack of sufficient funding.

Work factors: Changes in curriculum, instruction and assessment practices to support teaching and learning that prepares students for 21st-century success; increased demand for effective use of technology to support teaching, learning, administration and operations; increasingly diverse student populations requiring support services to speak and write in English; needs to integrate literacy across the curriculum by educators who may not have been trained to teach literacy; heavy paperwork and reporting compliance loads, especially in areas such as special education.

Worker factors: Experienced educators and leaders bring value but may not easily adjust to requirements for changes in practice and technology; aging out of baby boomers with experience, requiring methods for knowledge and skill transfer via coaching and performance support; challenges to educator motivation due to challenges in the workplace; workers who desire a work/life balance that is hard to achieve when supporting student needs.

Ill-structured problems such as these require a collaborative improvement efforts, guided by facilitators who can help people work together to pursue the right sets of solutions, plan and implement them with fidelity and sustain behaviors and progress.

In 2010, I was researching schools in the state of Georgia that had been significantly underperforming but had turned around their performance and sustained that progress. At the same time, I was in the process of completing my Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) certification through the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).

As I interviewed the principals and state-assigned school improvement specialists who had guided the turnaround efforts, it was clear that each had independently figured out how to guide those they were supporting through the improvement process. They had an implicit understanding of how to guide and sustain turnaround. As they shared their practices and approaches, it became clear that I was witnessing the birth of standards for their performance and practice, just as ISPI had studied HPI practitioners and codified their practices.

I contacted Dr. Judith Hale, who was managing the CPT certification process for ISPI for help in expanding the study in Georgia to a national study. Within a year we had codified the practices of successful school improvement facilitators and established the first set of 10 Certified School Improvement Specialist (CSIS) standards.

Having been steeped in the CPT standards, I could see the value of the CPT principles and practices for school improvement facilitators who told us consistently that they had no common improvement process model, such as what CPTs share.

Using the CPT standards, Dr. Hale and I engaged high-performing school improvement facilitators in developing courses for educators that wed the "how to do it" the work of facilitation of school improvement with the "what to do," as reflected in the CPT principles and practices.

Like the CPT, our system is now an evidence-based certification that state and local education agencies can use to assess the proficiency in practice of those assigned to struggling schools. Within the CSIS beats the heart of the CPT principles, with an emphasis on results, systemic focus, value, partnerships and a systematic approach to improvement:

  1. Analyze and apply critical judgment
  2. Facilitate making meaning and engagement
  3. Focus on systemic factors
  4. Plan and record
  5. Organize and manage efforts
  6. Guide and focus collaborative improvement
  7. Build capacity
  8. Demonstrate organizational sensitivity
  9. Monitor accountability and adoption
  10. Implement for sustainability

As school districts, state education agencies and schools work to find and implement the best solutions for their contexts under the new ESSA requirements, the CSIS standards and training are now an action vehicle for bringing human performance improvement into the language and practices of K-12 education in the U.S, while honoring the standards of practice of effective improvement facilitators.

Educators now have the training and tools to apply to solving the ill-structured problems that challenge struggling schools.