Learning Improvement – Steps to Success

How Seattle Keeps Improving Learning

In 2017 Seattle was ranked third among large urban districts for student growth. And they keep striving to get better.  Seattle’s improvement journey illustrates the three aspects of a “community of practice:”

  • Domain:  Student-Focused Collaboration has been a steady focus.
  • Community:  District teams keep working to get better as do school teams.
  • Practice:  Research identified positive outliers and best practices.  Aligned goal setting helped make significant gains for African American students.

Iterative  Cycles of Inquiry

MTSS keeps getting better.  Each cycle of inquiry reveals new areas to be addressed.   Moving from 100+ site-based schools to a ‘system of schools’ takes incredible effort.


Major MTSS milestones over the last decade include:

  • 2012-13: Three-year plan to take MTSS to scale district-wide.
  • 2013-14: Professional development on Common Core Standards.
  • 2014-15: Interim assessment measures that provide mid-year progress monitoring.
  • 2015-16: PD in using data to improve student learning. Training in: SEL, trauma, adverse childhood experiences (ACES), PBIS, RULER, and equity.
  • 2016-17: MTSS broadened to Whole Child framework including academics and behavior.
    Identification of trend bender “look fors” that contribute to MTSS successes.
    District-wide PD (first in 14 years) on Relationships and Resiliency.
  • 2017-18: Formula for Success pulls together evidence-based research on what works.
    Monthly walk throughs focus on school plans, implementation and results.
    Trend bender schools share lessons learned.
  • 2018-19: C-SIPs focus on eliminating specific gaps for students of color especially African American students. Budgets aligned around board approved SMART goals.
    Key Performance Indicators: 3rd gr. reading; 8th gr. Algebra and on-time graduation.

Going Deeper:

  • Seattle outperforms peers: on average as well as by percentage of positive outlier schools.
  • The Research office studies trend bending schools and finds that:
    • Knowing and teaching to standards; interim measures; collaborative teams; and using data works.
    • Caring adults and positive relationships with students make a difference, particularly for students of color.
    • Care coordination helps ensure that students receive appropriate interventions.
      (Trend Bending Schools Rainier View and Olympic Hills)
  • The school board asks that these “bend the trend” practices be applied districtwide.
    Transition from site-based to evidence-based accelerates.
  • Training guides and rubrics are developed.
  • Monthly PD sessions for Principal Leadership Networks and Assistant Principals;
    Principals share “trend bending” practices at Summer Leadership Institute.
  • MTSS manual captures lessons learned.  Schools focus on knowing students by name, need and strength.
  • Intensive supports are provided for 24 targeted schools (identified by district and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) standards).

The Rest of the Story:

I retired as Seattle Superintendent in 2018.  The rest of the story comes from Wyeth Jessee, Chief of Schools and Continuous Improvement.

  • School improvement plans (100+) analyzed in depth. Goals, strategies, and PD aligned. Targeted goals and  ‘action plans’ tied to NCLB.  Schools focus on ONE goal.
  • District support teams meet with school teams at least monthly. District teams bring support from district departments: ELL/SpEd/Behavior/Health/C&I/HiCap.
    Data used to adapt and improve school improvement plans.
  • School Support:  The number of school supervisors increased from 5 to 8.
    More support and accountability across all 100+ schools.
  • Evidence: The 24 targeted schools showed: 8% ELA jump for African American students in grades 3-4-5; and a 32% drop in suspensions.

Community of Practice: 

Seattle Schools keeps improving through:

  • Focus on a specific domain … improved student learning.
  • Community … coordination of district teams and school teams.
  • Practice: setting stretch goals, continued cycles of learning, and adaptation based on data.

A community of practice is a group of people who “share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” – Etienne Wenger.










Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com