Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


The Official Baldrige Blog

Sustaining Educational Excellence Despite Challenges

photo of Iredell-Statesville schools PDSA classroom example

An I-SS classroom display shows an example of sharing improvements with students. Photo used with the permission of Iredell-Statesville Schools.

We have previously highlighted the continued progress in recent years of the Baldrige Award-winning Iredell-Statesville Schools (I-SS) of southwestern North Carolina.

Among economic challenges that the 21,000-plus student district had faced over the previous five years, we noted, “Cuts in tax-based funding have amounted to millions shaved from annual education budgets. And the number of students poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches has risen from 35 percent to just under 45 percent of the student population.”

Yet the district is still enhancing and maintaining improvements in wide-ranging performance areas. It does so by adhering to a systems perspective and other aspects of the Baldrige excellence framework it adopted 13 years ago.

I-SS has provided inspiration and guidance to struggling school systems around the country by sharing its story and practices. Therefore, we recently asked for another update from Melanie Taylor, I-SS Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.

Taylor illuminated how public school districts can benefit from using the Baldrige framework for excellence despite the heightened poverty of U.S. schoolchildren today and other economic and social challenges: “As public schools are facing more and more challenges through increased competition and declining budgets, using the Baldrige Criteria can help districts work smarter with fewer resources,” she said. Baldrige-using districts accomplish this, she explained, “by examining key processes to help determine what’s working and what needs to be improved or eliminated altogether.”

“As a district, we’ve been able to maintain market share and increase or maintain performance while [tax-based] resources and budgets have continued to decline,” she added. “By gathering feedback even from those who choose to leave our district, we’ve been able to make improvements to the organization.”

According to Taylor, such feedback “has indicated a need to increase rigor and choice in the district.” In response, over the last six to seven years I-SS has expanded “choice options” for students, including early college programs, career academies, dual-immersion language programs, and the International Baccalaureate program, despite declining budgets.

This expansion has been possible through alignment of district resources and processes, she explained. Referring to her district’s continued use of the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence since its 2008 Baldrige Award, Taylor said, “It’s always a challenge to keep the focus. You have new staff or board members that don’t understand because they don’t have the background in continuous improvement. You continually have to on-board staff with the ‘why we do this.’”

Taylor pointed out that the accountability and sharing of control that are expected in the district “make some uncomfortable.” Yet on a hopeful note, she added, “Most folks get it once they’ve seen it in action and see the positive results.”

Among those results, I-SS has sustained dramatic improvements since 2002 on measures such as its high school graduation rate, student performance on SAT tests, state academic ranking, and percentages of highly qualified and National Board-certified teachers. I-SS also has improved its financial and budgetary results, in part by winning large grants in recent years to support student learning.

For example, Taylor affirmed that I-SS is one of just seven school districts in the nation to receive a $5 million federal i3 grant, which required a $1 million private match, and that it is one of 16 districts nationwide to receive a $20 million “Race to the Top” federal grant. Taylor further noted that I-SS is the only public school district in the country to have received both of those federal grants.

Taylor offered the following three tips to other school districts exploring or beginning to implement the Baldrige framework to improve systemwide performance:

1. Adopt continuous improvement at all levels of the organization: “You can gain more traction (sustainability) by implementing throughout all levels instead of just management,” said Taylor. “In I-SS, we use PDSA [Plan-Do-Study-Act process improvement method] with five-year-olds.”


2. Continually focus on “why we do this” and the positive results: “Help folks understand why you’re doing what you’re doing so you gain more buy-in,” stressed Taylor.

3. Engage everyone in improvement efforts: “Start by having different levels identify a problem that they think needs improving. It might not be what senior leadership would see as a problem, but if those at that level of the organization see it as a problem to address and can be a part of the solution, they’re more apt to buy in later on,” Taylor noted.

Taylor encourages educators and others to attend her district's best-practice sharing presentations to “come see and learn how the PDSA cycle is utilized by teachers at the classroom level to engage students, increase learning, and drive instructional improvement.” 

About the author

Christine Schaefer

Christine Schaefer is a longtime staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP). Her work has focused on producing BPEP publications and communications. She also has been highly involved in the Baldrige Award process, Baldrige examiner training, and other offerings of the program.

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar and a double major, receiving highest distinction for her thesis in the interdisciplinary Political & Social Thought Program. She also has a master's degree from Georgetown University, where her studies and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

When not working, she sits in traffic in one of the most congested regions of the country, receives consolation from her rescued beagles, writes poetry, practices hot yoga, and tries to cultivate a foundation for three kids to direct their own lifelong learning (and to PLEASE STOP YELLING at each other—after all, we'll never end wars if we can't even make peace at home!).

Related posts


First and foremost, congratulations to ARDEC for its receipt of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. As a training manager, I can appreciate the investment in training that ARDEC has exemplified. I would also like to point out that ARDEC not only surpassed the ASTD best-in-class benchmark, but they exceeded these benchmarks by more than 50%!Investing in your organization's Learning and Development Program has proven to increase financial returns by more than 15% versus the S&P 500 overall.(Human Capital Measurement and Its Impact on Stock Performance, KnowledgeAdvisors, 2008)The next step is to isolate the effects of the training and communicate to senior leaders how learning and development contributes to the bottom line.

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as long as they are appropriate for a public, family friendly website, are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, misleading or false information/accusations or promote specific commercial products, services or organizations. Comments that violate our comment policy or include links to non-government organizations/web pages will not be posted.