3 ‘jobs to be done’ that drive continuous K-12 improvement

Fresno USD in California increased by 50% the number of students applying to nonlocal colleges
By: | March 9, 2021
(Clayton Christensen Institute)(Clayton Christensen Institute)

Complex interdependencies across a school system can stymie even the most well-intentioned improvement efforts, says a new research from the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that studies disruption.

For example, professional development initiatives may guide teachers in personalizing instruction but staffing policies leave them without enough time to plan differentiated lessons, according to “The K-12 improvement imperative.”

Some K-12 leaders have adopted a “continuous improvement” approach—which emerged in the automobile industry in the 1950s—to diagnose problems, identify solutions and then refine those ideas with feedback and experimentation, says the study’s author, Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow.

Districts have seen promising results—Fresno USD in California, for example, increased by 50% the number of students applying to nonlocal colleges, Arnett says.


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In the report, Arnett breaks down another approach, “the Jobs to Be Done Theory,” as a key mindset for driving continuous improvement in schools and districts.

This theory is based on the premise that all people strive to make progress in their lives. “A ‘job’ represents a common desire for progress plus the circumstances in which that desire frequently arises,” Arnett says.

He interviewed school system leaders in the summer of 2020 about their recent improvement efforts to determine the three  key ‘Jobs to Be Done’ to drive continuous improvement:

Job 1: “Correct”

I have a specific problem. Help me fix it. 

In this job, leaders’ were driven to solve a problem by their sense of personal responsibility for their students’ success and well-being.

However, they also discovered that trying to implement the right program, policies or practices in wasn’t the answer because the problem was perpetuated by systemic problems in their organizations.

Seeking a quick solution, these leaders did want to spend time learning about theory, so they convened a small coalition of willing colleagues to test ideas before implementing them districtwide.

Arnett recommends that these leaders present tailored solution as a set of easy-to-learn tools and practices rather than as a body of research.

Job 2: “Coordinate”

I’m frustrated. Help me rally others to move the needle.

“Coordinate” addresses the challenges leaders face when they seek specific solutions—rather than overarching philosophies—t0 problems that extend beyond their immediate realm of influence, Arnett writes.

Continuous improvement equipped them with a language and a set of methods to rally a team to solve the problems.


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These teams comprise educators from different departments with a need to get involved in problem-solving.

Job 3: “Reorient”

We can’t do what we did in the past. Help us find a new way as a school system.

In this case, leaders sought an brand new approach to helping educators in their systems solve complex problems, such as the need to improve student outcomes.

This problem was caused by “a system riddled with problems,” including persistent breakdowns spanning from the district office to individual classrooms, Arnett write. Furthermore, the issues encompassed attendance, achievement, facilities and transportation.

To bring continuous improvement, leaders needed a method for organizing their teams to solve systemic problems and “resources that make teaching the basics
of continuous improvement persuasive, quick, and easy,” Arnett says.

Leaders found it effective to map out staff members’ varying levels of improvement expertise as they targeted professional development resources.