Testimony to the Biden-Harris Transition Team for Education

Submitted by  

Ash Vasudeva, Vice President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 

Jim Kohlmoos, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Principal,  EDGE Consulting 

Marshall Smith, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former U.S. Undersecretary of Education

Updated November 23, 2020

Education groups, research organizations, and government agencies have provided local and state education leaders with an endless array of guidance and information for making evidence-informed decisions about school re-opening and recovery. Decision makers are challenged to make sense of all of this and how to pick, choose, and appropriately apply guidance to their own contexts. The Learning Policy Institute’s recent report “Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond” describes the gravity and sense of urgency that education leaders face in making decisions about reopening schools safely and dealing with the deeper systemic issues. LPI’s 10 key areas provide a useful framework for the types of decisions that education leaders need to make and illustrate the multi-dimensional pressures that decision makers confront on a daily basis.   

As a complement to the LPI framework, we recommend the following three ways to apply continuous improvement approaches to address problems of practice relating to safe school reopening in the short term and reinvention into the future. We agree with a recent Brookings policy report  that “The speed and depth of change mean that it will be essential to take an iterative approach to learning what works, for whom, and under what enabling conditions. In other words, this is a moment to employ the principles of improvement science.” We show what the Biden-Harris Administration can do through non-statutory federal education policy initiatives in its first months in office to help build state and local improvement infrastructures for re-opening and reinventing our nation’s schools. 

Improvement Infrastructures

When the COVID-19 pandemic first convulsed across the United States, scientists, health-care providers, and community leaders scrambled to patch gaping holes in the country’s public health infrastructure. As the public health crisis has stabilized, parents, teachers, and community-service leaders are striving to replace bricks-and-mortar educational infrastructure with virtual and socially-distanced alternatives. COVID-19 is a stark reminder that only healthcare touches more lives than education. 

So when it comes to the public education infrastructure in the U.S.—school districts and CMOs; colleges and universities; for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations; technical support providers; and regional, state, and federal agencies—one way to vitalize it is to transform it into an improvement infrastructure. By improvement infrastructure, we mean organizations with the capabilities, capacity, and commitment to support continuous improvement strategies in ways that improve educational outcomes and reduce inequity.

Over the last three years, the Carnegie Foundation’s Spotlight on Quality in Continuous Improvement program has been highlighting educational organizations that have transformed themselves in ways that are consistent with an improvement infrastructure. The book Improvement in Action: Advancing Quality in America’s Schools uses organizations spotlighted by the Carnegie Foundation in 2017 to identify elements of an improvement infrastructure.  Similarly, recent Carnegie Spotlight organizations are using key features of continuous improvement —such as real-time analytics, networks, and user-centered design—to advance educational equity at scale. For example:

  • The Fresno Unified School District partnered with the University of California, Merced to use equity-centric continuous improvement. The district’s Department of Equity and Access leveraged this partnership to increase its high school graduation rates from 70% to 85% and nearly double the college-eligibility rate.

  • The Northwest Regional Education Service District is the largest of 19 public education service districts in Oregon. NRESD has developed school networks to increase high school graduation rates—a key state priority. Network schools establish a common improvement aim, analyze underlying causes of low success rates, and implement evidence-based practices to help students stay-on track to high school graduation. In only two years, the network has increased 9th-grade on-track indicators (a key predictor of high school graduation) by 7% for Latinx students and 10% for Black students in participating schools and districts. 
  • The School District of Menomonee Falls has embraced continuous improvement approaches across its entire system. This improvement culture has resulted in many significant improvements, including the transformation of Menomonee Falls High School from a federal designation of “in need of improvement” in 2011 to a U.S. News & World Report “top high school in the nation.” in 2017, the reduction in middle school suspension rates by 63 percent, and the decline in workplace injury claims by $500,000.

These organizations demonstrate that existing educational systems can use continuous improvement to better serve students and families via slightly different strategies—analytics to understand when changes are truly improvements, networks to accelerate learning, and user-centered implementation designs to adapt evidence-based practices in diverse contexts. A national investment in continuous improvement infrastructure could dramatically strengthen capabilities within school systems, intermediary partners, and local communities to improve student outcomes and reduce equity gaps.  


We propose that the Biden-Harris Administration adopt continuous improvement as a central organizing theme for federal support of school re-opening and reinvention at the US Department of Education (ED). Through its policies, programs, and operations, the ED should encourage and enable local and state educational agencies to create, over time, their own continuous improvement capacities and infrastructures. Here are three recommendations for actions the new administration can undertake in its first several months in office without the need for legislative action.  

  1. Guidance: Help states and localities use the Every Student Succeeds Act and other federal statutes to address reopening and recovery issues and build their own continuous improvement infrastructures. The Secretary should use available executive authorities for fast-turnaround, non-legislative action on addressing reopening problems of practice with continuous improvement approaches in ESSA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and  Strengthening Career and Technical Education Act. Secretarial action for ESSA should include: 
  • Providing non-regulatory guidance for wide dissemination that identifies allowable ways and promising strategies for leveraging funds in key parts of ESSA including: Title I Part A,B,C,D; Title II Part A; Title III;  Title IV Part A; Title V Part B; Title V
  • Issuing “Dear Colleague” guidelines to chief state school officers for revising state and local school improvement plans as part of the set aside for Title I School Improvement Section 1003 and integrating continuous improvement approaches for targeted and comprehensive support for designated schools  
  • Convening technical assistance webinars and virtual meetings to provide guidance on how ESSA-funded  continuous improvement can be used to address state and local school re-opening issues. 
  1. Knowledge: Expand the knowledge base and support for using continuous improvement infrastructures in addressing school reopening and reinvention efforts. During the first 100 days, the Administration should use the appropriations process for FY 2022 and other authorities to set a high priority on investing in existing key improvement-oriented, research, and technical assistance programs at the ED by: 
  • Supporting new research studies on school reopening and continuous improvement efforts through the Institute of Education Sciences Education Research Grants Program
  • Establishing a new Research and Development Center on Continuous Improvement to conduct supplemental research and provide national leadership for school reopening (Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 Section 133(c))
  • Refocusing the system of research and technical support on local school reopening and improvement approaches through the Comprehensive Centers program (ESRA Title II Section 203) and Regional Education Laboratory program (ESRA Title I Section 174)
  •  Establishing a new continuous improvement priority focusing on reopening and reinvention for the Education Innovation and Research Program (ESSA section 4611) 
  1. Capacity: Create a continuous improvement capacity within ED for addressing school reopening and reinvention issues and initiatives. During the first 100 days and beyond, the Administration should lead by example and create an improvement infrastructure and culture within ED for dealing with school recovery efforts. This should be done by building upon the provisions of the bipartisan Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 and would involve instituting a number of operational initiatives in the immediate future such as: 
  • Establishing a Chief Improvement and School Opening Officer to manage day-to-day operations of improvement integration into ED programs 
  • Creating an Improvement Science for School Reinvention Working Group within ED to coordinate all activities similar to those instituted in 2012-2016 
  • Designating quality improvement specialists in each program office to monitor and support improvement efforts related to reimagining schooling in program development and implementation
  • Instituting quality improvement standards and protocols throughout ED for dealing with ongoing crises 

As daunting as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for families, a return to business-as-usual schooling poses a far greater risk for students who have not been well-served by the current system for some time. A bipartisan commitment to developing state and local improvement infrastructures will establish longer term policies that advance equity and excellence in U.S. education. The need and potential are enormous—now is the time to seize it.

Ash Vasudeva, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching  vasudeva@carnegiefoundation.org 

Jim Kohlmoos, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Principal, EDGE Consulting  jimk@edgepartners.org

Marshall “Mike” Smith, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former U.S. Undersecretary of Education.  mike.marshallsmith@gmail.com