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Resources and lessons learned from REL Midwest’s networked improvement communities to support educators

Resources and lessons learned from NIC partnerships

By Cora Goldston
March 20, 2019

Research for educators is most effective when it’s conducted with educators. But how can researchers effectively engage and work with education practitioners? There are a number of models for research-practice partnerships. In addition to our research alliances, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest uses networked improvement communities (NICs) to conduct rapid research cycles in authentic school or district settings. A NIC brings together educators, researchers, and other stakeholders to identify a problem of practice and test an intervention to address the problem. NICs use Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles, which consist of the following steps:

  • Plan: Identify a challenge to focus on and an intervention to test.
  • Do: Put the intervention into practice.
  • Study: Observe and discuss the outcomes of the intervention.
  • Act: Refine the intervention and test again.

For example, REL Midwest’s Iowa Learning and Technology NIC pairs researchers with teachers, principals, instructional coaches, and area education agency staff to test, analyze, and revise strategies meant to help teachers identify and use technology practices that facilitate deeper content knowledge among students. Check out this previous REL Midwest blog post and our resource roundup for more information on the Iowa NIC and the overall NIC research process.

REL Midwest has led other NICs as well, and we’re always learning about the best ways to work with educators. Participating in a NIC helps schools and districts build their skills in data collection, analysis, and systematic planning to address challenges.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, we published a report that summarizes lessons learned from two REL Midwest NICs in Michigan and Minnesota. Drawing on our work with NICs, we offer some takeaways for others who may be interested in facilitating a NIC to address a problem of practice:

  • Make connections to bring a variety of stakeholders to the table. Effective NICs engage diverse perspectives about the targeted problem of practice. One way to form a diverse NIC is to identify one or more champions—practitioners who are enthusiastic about the topic and have connections with other practitioners at the state, local, or school levels. If your NIC topic aligns with work that’s already happening, you can also recruit members from an existing cohort of districts or schools, such as members of an afterschool pilot cohort for a NIC on effective out-of-school instructional practices. For example, in REL Midwest’s Iowa NIC, the Central Rivers Area Education Agency plays a key role in recruiting principals, teachers, and instructional coaches to provide diverse experiences to the NIC’s work.
  • Build on the expertise of the practitioners in the room. A NIC’s practitioner members are the experts on the context, policies, and practices in their education settings. The NIC facilitator should ensure that the NIC’s planned activities allow members to participate and provide input in a meaningful way at every step, including determining which challenge to address, designing the intervention to test, and making sense of the findings after testing the intervention. Researchers should introduce research evidence to build on practitioner expertise and inform decisionmaking.
  • Use the principles of improvement science to shape the NIC’s research and build members’ research capacity. Several improvement science processes are key to NIC research, including root-cause analysis, a theory of action, and PDSA cycles. To learn more about these key pieces, check out our Iowa NIC introductory learning module (PPT [6.23 MB PowerPoint icon ] and PDF [5.27 MB PDF icon ] versions) and the accompanying facilitator’s guide [2.76 MB PDF icon ]. By talking through each aspect of the NIC process with the group’s members, you can help state, local, and school education staff build their own understanding and ability to conduct similar research later.

What happens after you conduct a rapid research cycle or two? The Iowa NIC is developing an evaluation framework with insights to consider when designing and evaluating the work of your NIC. For more information about this upcoming work, visit our Work in Progress page.

In addition, REL Northeast & Islands is developing a toolkit about continuous improvement and NICs, which will include a workbook, templates, and a video. Visit the project’s Work in Progress page for more information.

Want to know more about NICs? Browse this set of resources, including a podcast and a documentary, for more information about our former NICs in Michigan and Minnesota. We also have an Ask a REL reference desk response on research-practice partnerships, which includes more NIC resources.

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Author(s) Information

Cora Goldston Staff Picture

Cora Goldston

Communications Associate | REL Midwest


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