Many view research-practice partnerships (RPPs) as a promising strategy to help schools and districts select, design, and adapt policies and programs rooted in evidence. One approach to organizing RPPs is as a Networked Improvement Community or “NIC.” Ideally, NICs provide a space for practitioners and researchers to come together, learn from one another through sharing and collaboration, and leave with new ideas to try in their own contexts. Here are two things you should know about these promising types of partnerships.
What are NICs?
NICs are networks of practitioners and researchers that work together to solve a common problem. They use the methods of improvement science to get better at how they go about solving pressing problems.
The idea of a NIC comes from Douglas Engelbart. Engelbart was concerned with how to improve work practices in different industries. He observed many individuals and organizations working to improve similar practices, often attending to different problems of practice and investigating different solutions. What if, he wondered, those people could form a network to learn from each other about their efforts, and thereby “get better at getting better”? That network he called a NIC.
A NIC depends on a “hub” that sits at the center of the network and serves as an organizer of the network and its activities. The hub can comprise any type of organization or group of organizations, such as county or district leaders or an intermediary organization. It can be seen as sitting at the center of a wheel with spokes radiating outward. The spokes are network members, some of whom may be implementers of change and others who may bring the types of expertise necessary for the network to do its work.
The hub is responsible for integrating the content expertise from the ‘spokes’ into the process, building a sense of community, and engineering knowledge sharing and collective learning across different groups. This also requires knowledge and understanding of the local contexts where the work is to be done. Those in the hub have a unique vantage point to see what is working and not working across the network’s spokes. These observations can inform the training the hub provides to build the capacity across the network and open up opportunities to bring in outside expertise.
Once the NIC is established, some of the work in the spokes will likely include the teams coming together to think collectively about the problems they are facing and decide what the specific focus or ‘aim’ of the network’s joint work should be. It is important that this identified problem be ‘measurable,’ so changes can be assessed over time to determine if they are improvements. The aim statement should specify who is responsible for the change, as well as a time period for accomplishing the aim. An example of an ‘aim statement’ might be: Science teachers and school leaders will work together to increase the percent of 8th graders who are proficient in science from 41% to 63% in three years.
Additionally, part of the work in the spokes is to establish a deeper understanding of the problem. For instance, a NIC might first explore questions such as: Are there any commonalities across students whose test scores are not proficient? They use specific tools such as a Fishbone or Ishikawa Diagram to gain insight into the causes of the problem. They also may conduct a “scan” of current practices and research to identify strategies for improving science learning. Then, teams engage in a collective inquiry process, organized around a cycle of inquiry adapted from industry. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been a leader in adapting these methods and in fostering the development of NICs for educational problems, with success in areas such as the improvement of pass rates in developmental mathematics in community colleges.
In this work, hubs such as those created by Carnegie do important coordinate work across the network that enables collective learning from the testing, refining, and integration of different improvement strategies across multiple contexts.
Why Are NICs Useful?
NICs’ use of iterative testing to learn about what works, for whom, and under what conditions makes them unique catalysts of educational improvement.
NICs use a systematic process of inquiry, guided by tools and routines adapted for education from improvement science to help practitioners try out ideas in new contexts. For instance, NICs use a formal process called a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle to “test” their ideas. Unlike the informal tinkering many educators and leaders already do, PDSA cycles are hypothesis-driven and provide a systematic way to rapidly test, refine, and learn from small shifts.
These cycles also are documented through a system of “practical measurements”, that is, measures that can be easily used in practice to study practice. This system allows NICs to track whether individual change efforts are actually improvements and to learn collectively from these efforts. It is very possible that after several testing cycles, some change ideas may not result in any immediate improvements. These “productive failures” are just as useful!
The NIC’s membership structure is also quite useful, bringing diverse stakeholders such as researchers and school and district leaders together to create various “cross-pollination” opportunities where individuals can learn from others who might be testing similar ideas in other contexts.
An Example of a NIC for Educational Improvement
The National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools (NCSU) is an example of a NIC that, for the past six years, has effectively scaled the personalization of academic and social emotional learning across high schools in one of the largest urban districts in the U.S. NCSU practitioners have shared that some of the most valuable learning opportunities stemmed from their ongoing continuous improvement efforts with other practitioners doing similar work across different contexts. This was especially compelling in the high school context, where collaboration across content areas is less common. For instance, early adopters could share the implementation successes and challenges they had faced to help new implementers avoid similar pitfalls. Teachers’ engagement in iterative PDSA cycles informed change ideas that had been tested over time, and they could offer schools unique insights about the PDSA process. The NCSU partnership still thrives today across the districts’ 24 high schools.
Becoming Involved in a NIC
From a district leadership perspective, the idea of organizing multiple schools or districts into a NIC may seem like a daunting task. The good news is, not only are there resources available for engaging in the actual work, but there are many resources to facilitate the initial set up of NICs in ways that are useful for one’s own context. In addition, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching holds regular workshops on the tools of improvement science.
Special thanks to the NCRPP Qualitative PLC (Caitlin Farrell, Angel Bohannon, Eleanor Anderson, Rachel Feldman, Lok-Sze Wong, Debbie Kim, Ayah Kamel, Abby Beneke, Naomi Blaushild, Natalie Jou, Jennifer Cowhy), Kristen Davidson, and Bill Penuel for their insightful feedback on this post!
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