The Region 5 Comprehensive Center along with state leaders in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia has been working to develop and implement Networked Improvement Communities (NIC) to inform improvement initiatives with an organized approach. The NIC process can be a powerful approach for solving a problem of practice, introducing new initiatives, or revising currently existing practices in education. The education community has recognized NICs and similar approaches for their promise in helping cross-agency partnerships to address a wide range of problems including achievement gaps, developmental math success in community colleges, and developing and retaining teachers (Coburn et al 2013, Bryk et al 2013, Proger et al 2017, Bryk 2020).
The NIC process consists of eight steps that can be completed from beginning to end or utilized as separate parts with various entry points. This makes a NIC approach versatile and easily modified to fit an organization’s needs. This blog provides an overview of the eight steps in the process. You may also access ready-made facilitator resources on the NIC website.
A Networked Improvement Community begins with a problem of practice. A problem of practice anchors the NIC, establishes a clear direction, and galvanizes collective action toward a common accomplishment.
Once the problem is identified, one or more network lead(s) initiate a core team of educators, researchers, content experts, and context experts who have specialized expertise and deep experience in the local context. The core team is responsible for launching the network and creating the conditions to maintain its success and sustainability, which include leadership, organization, and operation activities.
After the team is assembled, they work together to develop a well-specified problem statement that is high leverage, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Next the team explores root causes of the problem of practice to ensure that the problem is in fact the correct focus. A root cause analysis introduces various perspectives, prompts discussion, breaks larger issues into actionable pieces, and informs the development of targeted and measurable outcomes.
Identifying the root causes then informs the creation of a theory of action with a clear end goal. A theory of action outlines a vision of success for an improvement effort through a series of “if-then” assumptions around high-level actions and relationships. To shift the theory to a concrete and operational plan, the team then creates a logic model to specify the actions, milestones, and outputs needed to achieve desired outcomes. A logic model can also help clarify what is measurable to help teams monitor success and bridge the transition from a theory of action, to developing a measurement infrastructure.
Next, to systematically track progress the team establishes a measurement infrastructure to ensure that there are systems in place prior to implementation to measure the success of the outcome. Being proactive about measures will help to indicate whether a practice or initiative is providing the intended outcome. Utilizing the logic model and the measurement infrastructure the team then designs an implementation plan, a more detailed plan including the participants, their roles, and the actions they will be responsible for conducting.
Plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycles come next and offer a way to test and refine a strategy or intervention prior to scaling it up. State and district education leaders can use PDSA cycles to test the effectiveness of a specific policy or practice-based solution to a problem. Once the team lands on a successful process or innovation they can then scale up.
Implementing a NIC process allows practitioners to improve practice by learning what works, for whom, and under what conditions. Finally, through iterative practice, the NIC improves individual and collective capacities to achieve and sustain a culture of improvement which provides continuous, strategic, and effective methodologies to address problems and improve upon practice.
If you would like to learn more about what a Networked Improvement Community consists of and discover resources and supports that can help you implement a NIC in your organization, visit the Region 5 Comprehensive Center’s NIC website.
For more information and resources, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.
For in-depth case studies of school districts that have engaged in continuous improvement using a NIC approach (or similar effort), the following resources may be useful:
- Coburn, C.E., Penuel, W.R., & Geil, K.E. (January 2013). Research-Practice Partnerships: A Strategy for Leveraging Research for Educational Improvement in School Districts. William T. Grant Foundation, New York, NY.
- Bryk, A., Yeager, D., LeMahieu, P., Grunow, A., Gomez, Dolle, J., Hausman, H., and Muhich, J. (2013). Improvement Research Carried Out Through Networked Communities: Accelerating Learning about Practices that Support More Productive Student Mindsets. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
- Proger, A. R., Bhatt, M. P., Cirks, V., & Gurke, D. (2017). Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota (REL 2017–264). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest
- Bryk, A. (2020). Improvement in Action: Advancing Quality in America’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Press.
General resources to support the development and implementation of a NIC can be found here:
- REL Northeast & Islands Continuous Improvement in Education: A Toolkit for Schools and Districts
- Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: NIC Resources
- Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Resources on Networked Improvement Implementation
- National Implementation Research Network Implementation Hub
- Institute of Education Sciences Video Resources on Networked Improvement Communities