Incorporating Equity Into Rapid-Cycle Learning

Posted March 20, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
The graphic depicts a colorful flow chart of the Learn, Innovate, Improve framework.

Cham­pi­oning Change, a new guide from the research orga­ni­za­tion Math­e­mat­i­ca, helps ser­vice prac­ti­tion­ers use the rapid-cycle learn­ing method to achieve equi­table results. The resource, fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, incor­po­rates lessons learned from an effort by Agape Child & Fam­i­ly Ser­vices, a two-gen­er­a­tion ser­vice provider in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, to improve two of its pro­grams through small tests of change.

Rapid-cycle learn­ing is an approach to pro­gram improve­ment that allows prac­ti­tion­ers to quick­ly pilot strate­gies on a small scale — for exam­ple, with a few staff mem­bers or fam­i­lies — before mak­ing changes pro­gram- or agency-wide. The speed of test­ing and adap­ta­tion and the low stakes of indi­vid­ual iter­a­tions make for an appeal­ing alter­na­tive to a long, com­plex devel­op­ment process for a solu­tion that might fail. Rapid-cycle learn­ing gives ser­vice providers the chance to ful­ly under­stand how solu­tions work pri­or to adop­tion, as well as oppor­tu­ni­ties to demon­strate suc­cess and build buy-in among pro­gram lead­ers and staff, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and participants.

Down­load Cham­pi­oning Change

To ensure equi­table out­comes that remove bar­ri­ers for fam­i­lies of col­or, equi­ty prin­ci­ples must be inte­grat­ed into rapid-cycle learn­ing from the ground up — with the peo­ple most affect­ed by the pro­gram involved in shap­ing all aspects of the work. The guide presents tips and sug­ges­tions for con­duct­ing a rapid-cycle improve­ment effort with equi­ty built into each step.

Because includ­ing more diverse voic­es and accom­mo­dat­ing par­tic­i­pants’ sched­ules in a review process can take time, it might seem chal­leng­ing to incor­po­rate equi­ty into a rapid-cycle improve­ment process,” says Alli­son Holmes, a senior research asso­ciate at the Casey Foun­da­tion. This guide offers tan­gi­ble advice to ensure rapid-cycle learn­ing advances equi­ty while main­tain­ing momentum.”

Increas­ing School Atten­dance and Con­nect­ing Adults to Employment

In 2001, Agape began using a mod­el for sup­port­ing par­ents and chil­dren togeth­er through a range of pro­grams. Nine­ty-five per­cent of par­tic­i­pants in these pro­grams are adults and chil­dren of col­or. But when the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic hit in 2020, Agape need­ed to quick­ly piv­ot to ser­vices that par­tic­i­pants could access remote­ly. That’s when the orga­ni­za­tion start­ed a project called Refin­ing Vir­tu­al Ser­vices to Engage 2Gen Fam­i­lies — also known as REVISE 2G — to solve this new chal­lenge and hone their approach­es. In their part­ner­ship, Math­e­mat­i­ca and Agape sought to improve:

  • Stars, a school-based ini­tia­tive to improve stu­dents’ atten­dance and behav­ior while engag­ing their par­ents; and
  • Team­Works, an effort to con­nect par­ents to edu­ca­tion­al and employ­ment resources that sup­port their goals.

Phas­es of Rapid-Cycle Learning

Part­ners used the evi­dence-informed Learn, Inno­vate, Improve (LI2) frame­work of rapid-cycle learn­ing. LI2 includes three phas­es; con­sid­er­a­tions for each phase were devel­oped to incor­po­rate an inten­tion­al focus on equity.

Phase 1. The first phase of an improve­ment effort focus­es on defin­ing chal­lenges that pre­vent progress toward the estab­lished goal and explor­ing the organization’s readi­ness for change. To advance equi­ty, pro­gram staff mem­bers, par­tic­i­pants and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners should all be involved in brain­storm­ing activ­i­ties to iden­ti­fy chal­lenges and root caus­es. Infor­ma­tion from fol­low-up inter­views and focus groups can add impor­tant nuance to the pic­ture that emerges.

    Phase 2. In the next phase, pro­gram staff, par­tic­i­pants and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners work togeth­er to cre­ate strate­gies for improve­ment, giv­ing weight to com­mu­ni­ty-based exper­tise and pri­or­i­tiz­ing improve­ments that will achieve the best out­comes for all. This mutu­al cre­ation space should be open for hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion — includ­ing cri­tique — and all par­tic­i­pants should feel that their ideas, feed­back and exper­tise matter.

    Phase 3. The third phase includes test­ing solu­tions on a small scale, col­lect­ing and ana­lyz­ing data about how the strat­e­gy worked and cre­at­ing improve­ments for the strat­e­gy in an iter­a­tive process. Data should cap­ture diverse per­spec­tives from peo­ple involved with the pro­gram and be ana­lyzed — in part­ner­ship with front­line staff and pro­gram par­tic­i­pants — to under­stand the effects of the solu­tion for dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent contexts. 

    Rec­om­men­da­tions for Advanc­ing Equi­ty in Rapid-Cycle Learning

    The guide includes the fol­low­ing recommendations:

    • Ensure a strong foun­da­tion. Engage staff, par­tic­i­pants, and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners ear­ly through an advi­so­ry group to help plan for test­ing. Plan to com­pen­sate pro­gram par­tic­i­pants for their time.
    • Iden­ti­fy chal­lenges and their root caus­es togeth­er. Pri­or­i­tize the expe­ri­ence of users to pro­mote inclu­sive par­tic­i­pa­tion. Bring data and addi­tion­al voic­es into the con­ver­sa­tion, if need­ed, to illu­mi­nate the issues.
    • Cre­ate inno­v­a­tive strate­gies togeth­er. Brain­storm the effects of poten­tial strate­gies and whether they are like­ly to lead to equi­table out­comes. Reassess whether your orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture is ready for the new approach­es. If you are using an estab­lished inter­ven­tion, leave room for par­tic­i­pants to weigh in on how the approach should be adapted.
    • Test and assess strate­gies through reflec­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion. Ana­lyze data to clar­i­fy the effects of new strate­gies on dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple. Ensure pro­gram par­tic­i­pants are involved in set­ting pri­or­i­ties for test­ing and inter­pret­ing the data.

    Learn more about the Agape-Math­e­mat­i­ca partnership

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