Organization in Education Matters: Network Improvement Communities (NIC) and Improvement Science

| Written by Richard Fournier, Transforming Education

Collaborative cultures, which by definition have close relationships, are indeed powerful, but unless they are focusing on the right things they may end up being powerfully wrong.

-Michael Fullan

As states and districts across the U.S. consider an array of strategies and initiatives to improve student outcomes, questions about how to structure these improvement efforts inevitably emerge.  Choosing the right education strategies to solve problems can be a daunting challenge; understanding how to organize for efficient and effective problem solving is another element that is not only challenging but sometimes undervalued. Drawing from improvement science, the Network Improvement Community Model (NIC) is a relatively new approach that provides a framework for deep, networked problem solving.  For school and district leaders wanting to improve outcomes in a specific area, this model can serve an efficient way to organize participants.  Too often we waste funding, personnel, and other resources toward admirable goals but with a vague understanding of the complexities of the problem.  NICs hone in on a single, specific problem and concentrate the energies of all participants to resolve the problem in a cyclical process that creates immediate and actionable results.   

The model, as described in Learning to Improve:  How America’s Schools can get Better at Getting Better (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015), enables its members to "learn fast and implement well," as opposed to "going fast and learning slowly.” The latter has tended to be the more common reform strategy.  Education leaders are under enormous pressure to make change happen fast, and, unfortunately, a top-down framework is often used to implement solutions quickly.  Perhaps the state has warned a district that it is far below the state average in literacy scores, or maybe the school board has indicated a new desire for students to acquire global competency skills.  In either case, the superintendent knows stakeholders expect fast results.  It is tempting to implement a new initiative to address these issues.  Whether it’s evidence based or not, and whether or not the decision involves other staff members, it can quickly become mired in implementation difficulties: teachers may have never bought in to the initiative, professional development may have been inadequate or nonexistent, or data may unavailable to assess progress. At worst, the actual problem may have never been fully understood in the first place. By the time these issues come to light, the initiative is underway.  Thus, educators sometimes find themselves going fast and learning slowly.

Rather than quickly packaging an initiative and hoping teachers and school leaders can figure out implementation as they go, the NIC model places the emphasis on learning quickly to facilitate effective implementation.   Every participant in the NIC process, every teacher, paraprofessional, assistant principal, data analyst, researcher, and parent owns the outcomes because they actively contribute to the improvement effort.  They are held accountable through a cyclical assessment of data, facilitated by the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) approach. At the heart of this model is data:  after identifying an appropriate plan of action and carrying out the plan, participants study the data to assess progress.  In the final step, participants act on the data. The process of change is data driven and intentional, done in rapid cycles.

Networking communities assume a bottom-up approach, garnering practitioner ‘buy-in’ and ownership along the way.  As the Carnegie Foundation states, a NIC is an "intentionally designed social organization" that focuses deeply on a particular problem, the system that produced that problem, and its network of participants related to the problem.  A typical district approach is to form a task force, committee, or a group of dedicated practitioners to tackle a problem or idea; a NIC encapsulates all of these, but with a tightly organized functionality around improvement science. Members of a NIC have distinct roles, responsibilities, and norms. Other organizational models, of course, can also have these, but when coupled with the principles of improvement science, a NIC is especially powerful.  These principles include 1) specifying the problem, 2) carefully examining variation in performance, 3) understanding the process producing current outcomes, 4) measuring for accountability and scale.  Each is equally important, and they rely heavily on the active participation of each member.

In specifying the problem, a NIC may aim to drastically lower its district dropout rates among high school students, understand a high attrition rate, or improve schools' communication with families.  Once an initial issue is identified, what are the programs, processes, structures, technical resources, and roles that are involved?  Answers to these questions will make clearer the complexities of the problem and likely produce more effective solutions.  We may assume, for example, that hiring additional teachers or providing extra professional development may be the solution(s) to raise academic scores of English Language Learners.  Yet, research shows that several other factors may be important, such as successful school engagement the families of ELL students, classroom space and visuals, supportive school climate, or schoolwide commitment to ELL performance.   A network of participants from different backgrounds and roles are positioned to elicit fresh perspectives.    

The focus on process and measurement (that is, regular cycles of data analysis to hold the team accountable) are critical elements.  How often do we at the school or district level find our efforts undermined by unforeseen circumstances during implementation? Perhaps we discover halfway through the year that our teachers simply do not have the daily class time to implement the new hands-on STEM curriculum.  Or, we hear that the new 8th grade online algebra class fails to increase math scores in the later years, because, we later learn, the biggest problem was a lack of digital literacy skills.  An early examination of the processes we are targeting, and using data to assess our progress in rapid cycles, may have helped in these hypothetical dilemmas. 

Educating students is a complex undertaking, and when we try to improve aspects of this process we can easily waste valuable time and effort focusing on the wrong problems or remedies.  As Michael Fullen noted in Leading in a Culture of Change, “collaborative cultures, which by definition have close relationships, are indeed powerful, but unless they are focusing on the right things they may end up being powerfully wrong.”  Organization in education matters, especially in our efforts to improve student outcomes. Educators place so much passion, care, and effort into daily practice that it only makes sense to utilize their time in the best way—a way that values every participant’s expertise and ideas, and applies them to very specific problems.