PSU College of Education Faculty Members Published in Book on Equity-Minded Improvement Science
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: June 4, 2019

Improvement science is like the opposite of paternalism.

Instead of people in power assuming that they know best for someone else—whether the mainstream for marginalized groups, teachers for students or bosses for workers—the essential idea of improvement science is to ask. Ask students, teachers, the community what might work so that they can propose a solution, with the power to collaborate and execute a solution held firmly in their hands.

College of Education (COE) Associate Professors Deborah Peterson and Susan Carlile and their students Ryan Carpenter and Cassandra Thonstad are part of a movement to apply this concept to education.

This quartet of academics are responsible for four chapters in “The Educational Leader's Guide to Improvement Science: Data, Design and Cases for Reflection,” which came out in March. They co-wrote Chapter 8, called “Preparing School Leaders to Effectively Lead School Improvement Efforts: Improvement Science.”

“The basic concept is in school systems, rather than having the school board or superintendent or building principals tell the students how to improve, have the teachers or the families or the students identify the problem,” Peterson says.

They also wrote Chapter 10 together, called, “Redesign of the Licensure Field-Based Experience Using Improvement Science.” Carlile explained that the essential truth behind every chapter is the same, that the people who are on the ground should be the ones guiding the changes in their field because they know it best. Then, once people realize how much they know, it helps further improve the environment around them.

“You create an environment where people collaborate or move ahead with what they think is important, and from there, they gain confidence,” she said.

Peterson created Chapter 14 with Carpenter, called “Using Improvement Science in Professional Learning Communities: From Theory to Practice.” Carpenter said he has seen improvement science create real results in professional learning communities (PLCs).

“Using improvement science tools in the PLCs in the district I serve has proven significant growth in student achievement,” he said. “Our graduation rate has risen 10% in the last two years, we are seeing double digit gains in K-5 achievement, and our staff morale is high with a 93% job satisfaction rating among certified teachers.”

In addition, Thonstad authored Chapter 13, “Growth and Grading: Overcoming ‘Grades Don’t Matter’ in Middle School.” Peterson said it is a “brilliant chapter” and that Thonstad is an “amazing leader” who leverages improvement science processes to help middle schoolers improve their academic performance.

Carlile and Peterson are not the only ones in the COE who are interested in improvement science, but they gained a special affinity for it after the dean in 2016 invited them to take a course on it led by nationally recognized PSU scholar Professor Sherril Gelmon. Before long, Peterson and Carlile were actively joining improvement science conferences.

Last year, the duo presented at two conferences on employing improvement science to get students’ voices head. The conferences were put on by the University Council of Educational Administration, a consortium of institutions advancing the work of educational leaders, and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which espouses improvement science and networked communities as ways to resolve inequities in education.

Carlile and Peterson came to know and gain respect from people in the field, such as Robert Crow. Crow, an editor, was compiling a multi-author book on improvement science. He invited Peterson and Carlile to submit their work, and they earned a place in the book through a blind peer review process. Peterson said that Crow called the book a “Portland State book” because of the depth of involvement from the four PSU educators.

Peterson said that she, Carlile and their students are committed to improvement science because it matters.

“It’s about empowerment, and as Susan said, it’s an improvement process that empowers the most marginalized, underserved and oppressed in our communities so that one’s race, gender or socioeconomic status doesn’t decide their future,” Peterson said.

The Educational Leader’s Guide to Improvement Science is available online on the Stylus Publishing website and on

Carlile and Peterson may have another book coming out soon, and Carlile said that their professional collaboration has helped them both be more successful and more fulfilled.

“Deborah is kind,” she said. “She’s always thinking about other people before herself, and she thinks of me before herself.”

Peterson said that Carlile took work off of her plate that might otherwise have held her back.

“You, Susan, gave me feedback that was kind and critical to help me improve directly and in a supportive way, and you always find the best in me and help me to be the best that I could possibly be,” Peterson said.

Carlile replied, “That’s why (it works) and it keeps working.”

Peterson agreed, “And it keeps working.”

Photo: From left to right: College of Education (COE) Associate Professors Susan Carlile and Deborah Peterson are among the authors on a new work, “The Educational Leader's Guide to Improvement Science: Data, Design and Cases for Reflection.”

To share stories about the College of Education, email Jillian Daley at