School “Improvement”

Schools are also organizations that are always seeking to improve. “Quality” is a difficult concept to define, but there is a large industry that is dedicated to helping organizations improve the quality of their work and “continuous improvement” is a goal that articulated in the mission and vision statements of many schools and educational organizations.

Because schools are multifaceted and can be understood from different perspectives, the goal of “continuous improvement” is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. In 1973, planning scholars, Horst Rittel and Melvin Weber, differentiated tame problems from wicked problems. Tame problems are definable, understandable, and consensual; we know their cause, how to solve them, and we agree they should be solved. Wicked problems are ill-defined, there is no clear path to solution, and there may not even be agreement the problem exists.

A key characteristic defining wicked problems is that it (and its solutions) is judged differently depending on one’s perspective. This can lead to multiple judgements about a problem or solution that are contradictory, but logical and supported by reasonable evidence. Rittel and Webber concluded, “what satisfies one may be abhorrent to another, [and] what comprise problem-solution for one is problem-generation for another,” and that in this situation, “there is no gain saying which group is right and which should have its end served” (1973, p. 169). Consider the dilemma facing schools: There is sufficient evidence to support later start times for high school students. There is biological and psychological evidence that their brains and bodies have sleep patterns that differ from those of adults, but attempts to adjust schedules to allow later start times are prevented by various “problems” which have nothing to do with learning and everything to do with inconveniencing adults..

It would seem that educators and other stakeholders who adopt the same perspective would have less difficulty in defining and solving problems and reaching consensus regarding improvements. Despite our best attempts at empathy, no individual (or group of) stakeholder(s) can adopt another’s perspective with clarity, We all hold our version of “improvement” is the “correct” one, and it probably is–for us. The challenge for leaders is to ensure all groups have a chance for school to be improved from their perspective.


Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences, 4(2): 155-169.