Kim Gibbons
Associate Director
Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)

In any type of organization, individual and organizational learning occurs at various interrelated levels. In education, teachers often learn at an individual level as they engage in teaching. As they implement new or existing instructional practices, they reflect on the impact of those practices and make adjustments when necessary. A second type of learning occurs between individuals in a building. A structured example is Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) where teachers work together as a team to reflect upon and improve instructional practices.  Learning can also occur between buildings and districts.

Recently, a new paradigm, Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) is emerging through the work of the Carnegie Foundation. NICs provide a structure for system leaders to engage with leaders from other districts who are trying to solve similar problems. The premise of a NIC is that when individuals from diverse contexts operate in a shared learning environment, their capacity to implement, evaluate, and refine solutions grows exponentially. We know that millions of educators are engaged in individual learning on a daily basis. Teachers are confronted with classroom problems and experiment with different ways to respond. We also know that many school districts across the country are implementing PLC’s and other system initiatives to help teachers learn from each other to improve student outcomes. Many districts are obtaining positive results! In his book “Learning to Improve,” Tony Bryk says “We live in separate silos. Much of value is being learned, but it lives and dies with those who have learned it.” NICs are focused on breaking down these silos and identify where unusually positive outcomes are occurring and figuring out exactly what is being done to replicate similar outcomes in other contexts.

Now, you may be thinking that there are many organizations and networks of practice that could be considered NIC’s. However, consider the defining characteristics of a NIC, and determine whether the networks you belong to meet these characteristics.

  • NICs are intentionally designed networks, grounded in improvement science, where participants have defined roles, responsibilities, and norms for membership.
  • NICs are focused on a common well-defined “aim” or problem of practice.
  • NICs engage in analyzing the problem to develop hypothesis about why the problem is occurring. This information is used to generate solutions.
  • Each member works to develop, evaluate, and refine system improvements.
  • Conditions and variations in performance across the network are analyzed allowing participants to see things that even the best individual educator would miss.
  • Participants learn from each other about what works and doesn’t work in each context.

Comparing results and learning from each other through a NIC creates a sense of “Moral Urgency” and the recognition that if one district can move the needle on an important problem, other districts can and should be able to replicate solutions as well. In contrast, we often see examples of positive outcomes in another district but often discount the data and explain away differences through factors such as better students, more resources, or better conditions.

CAREI is beginning the process of working to establish NIC’s for system leaders to tackle common problems of practice. We are moving away from the notion that researchers are “knowers” and school people are “doers” who should simply implement new findings from research to a framework where all players are improvers! Instead of implementing “initiatives” fast and wide, we want to learn fast and implement well in a variety of conditions and contexts. We want to refine quality processes, tools, and relationships to support complex work in different situations. Finally, we want to stop focusing on generating lists of what works, and instead, figure out what works, where, and why as the new gold standard.

If the idea of belonging to a NIC resonates with you, please give me a call (651.303.4141) or e-mail me at We are working to identify grants that would support this work and give district leaders a unique opportunity to implement solutions together and learn from each other. In addition, CAREI is leading a book study this year on “Learning to Improve”, and we plan to offer the book study again next year.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015).  Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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