Review: Improvement in Action

Review:  Improvement in Action:

by Anthony S. Bryk

What a gift!

This book captures 30 years of school DISTRICT improvement and provides six case studies. Anthony S. Bryk shares insights from the forefront of the improvement field:


For many years, Anthony Bryk, headed the University of Chicago Consortium for School Research.  They identified 100 positive school outliers and began to unpack the process of school improvement with a major focus on leadership.  As a result, Chicago embarked on three decades of improvement.  It could be argued that Chicago went from worst (Wm Bennett, Secty of Educ, 1987) to first (Sean Reardon’s study at Stanford, 2016).

Learning to Improve:

Bryk headed the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching from 2008 through 2020. During that time, they showed how Improvement Science and Network Improvement Communities can greatly improve the quality of student learning.  Their six core principles of improvement:

1. Be problem-specific and user-centered.

2. Attend to variability in performance as the core problem to address.

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes.

4. Embrace measurement; we can’t improve what we see.

5. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.

6. Accelerate improvements through networked communities.

Improvement in Action:

In this book, Bryk does two things no other book has been able to do.

  1. Tells real stories about real people: sharing the fits and starts of improvement work. He graphically shows the messiness of the work and how the stumbles along the way illuminate the path forward.
  2. And, he ties those successes back into the six core principles of improvement.

The central purpose of the book is to show the power of “quality continuous improvement” efforts. In so doing, Bryk, grows our competence and our confidence as readers and educators.  If others like us can do this, we too can learn to improve.

Case Studies

Six case studies explore what went well and tell how each project worked through challenges:

  • Fresno Unified (CA)

Fresno set out to address inequalities in graduation and college going. They examined their “leaky pipeline,” kept studying the system, and found/fixed problems.  That meant inventing new data tools and seeking out research partners.  This district, with 90% Free and Reduced Lunch made 50% improvements in college readiness and did even better for students of color.

  • New Visions (NYC)

New Visions nearly doubled college readiness in over two years. They started small by looking at positive outliers and analyzing attendance in one school. From there they made small field tests to find and refine positive interventions. One by one, they continued to solve graduation problems … “learning their way into improvements.”

  • Summit Public Schools (CA and WA)

The signature of Summit charter schools has been to put students in charge of their own learning.  To improve they used data to look for root causes. That led them to focus on improving growth mindsets for ELL students.  After that they found that reading readiness was a factor and researched more improvements.

  • High Tech High (San Diego)

Teacher autonomy was a big part of High Tech High’s success. But the data showed the need to get even better.  Teachers looked for new ways to improve, tried those out and gradually spread those ideas to other teachers.  Over time they grew a cadre of teacher leaders who helped drive the improvement process.

  • The National Writing Project

The National Writing Project focused on improving classroom instruction. Consulting teachers built on their relationships and trust with classroom teachers.  They created local research-practice sites to learn: what to teach; how to teach it; and how to know if students were learning. Gradually those ideas spread.

  • Menomonee Falls (WI)

This is a story of transforming an entire school system. Menomonee Falls trained everyone in continuous improvement and launched multiple improvement projects. Over time, with consistent leadership and support, expertise grew and projects spread. Improvements happened everywhere from classroom to operations.

Common Themes:

Themes across all six projects included:

  • Stable and sustained leadership that continues to grow staff capacity for continuous improvement
  • Learning to improve: using frequent inquiry cycles to make learning a sustainable part of the culture
  • Sustained support in the use of internal data and external research
  • Hub capacity – collaborative support at the center to analyze research, capture lessons learned, and spread improvements.

Getting Better:

This book, Bryk says, was designed to, “illustrate, amplify, and teach key improvement ideas in action … the day to day work of getting better.”  Improvement in Action delivers on that promise by giving us the hope, inspiration and ideas needed.

The key is quality continuous improvement and adaptation … to keep ‘getting better at getting better.’

For more information: 

Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better
by Anthony S. Bryk , Louis M. Gomez, et al. | Mar 1, 2015

Improvement in Action: Advancing Quality in America’s Schools (Continuous Improvement in Education Series) | by Anthony S. Bryk  | Jul 14, 2020



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: | 425-418-4398 |