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Home Publications Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota

Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota

by Amy Proger, Monica Bhatt, Victoria Cirks and Deb Gurke
Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota

There is growing interest in the ability of improvement science--the systematic study of improvement strategies to identify promising practices for addressing issues in complex systems (Improvement Science Research Network, 2016)--to spur innovation and address complex problems. In education this methodology is often implemented through collaborative research partnerships in which researchers and practitioners work together to systematically test and refine theories of change in real-world settings. A networked improvement community is a collaborative research partnership that uses the principles of improvement science within networks of organizations to learn from varied implementation of new ideas across contexts. While the central work of a networked improvement community is to identify a specific and actionable problem and collectively address it through an iterative process of designing, implementing, testing, and redesigning promising new practices, the learning from these iterative cycles can be brought back and applied to the local contexts of the networked improvement community participants (such as classrooms, districts, and states), potentially affecting education practices more widely. Although there is practical guidance for how networked improvement communities should structure this work, few published accounts describe the process of forming a networked improvement community. This report describes the process of forming networked improvement communities in Michigan and Minnesota after state education agency leaders requested assistance from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest to support state-led efforts to use improvement science to raise student achievement and narrow achievement gaps in schools with the widest achievement gaps (focus schools). The resulting collaborations led to the establishment of two networked improvement communities during the 2015/16 school year, one in Michigan and one in Minnesota, focused on improvement in schools identified as needing support under their accountability systems. The REL Midwest project team used guidance from the literature and other improvement science efforts (for example, Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015) to direct its activities. Each networked improvement community has a slightly different history and emphasis. The Michigan Focus Networked Improvement Community works across five focus schools --schools with the largest achievement gaps--in two districts to address disparities in student achievement within schools. The two districts are each part of an intermediate school district, a regional education service agency that provides consolidated support services to districts in an assigned service area and thereby plays an important role in providing professional development and supporting pilot programs in districts. Participants in the Michigan Focus Networked Improvement Community include state education agency representatives, intermediate school district administrators, district representatives, and focus school principals. The Minnesota Statewide System of Support Networked Improvement Community seeks to improve state supports to six Regional Centers of Excellence that serve focus schools. In Minnesota, the Cross-agency Implementation Team oversees the implementation of the statewide system of support. Its members include leadership and content specialists from both the Minnesota Department of Education and the Regional Centers of Excellence; they also serve as participants in the networked improvement community. The goal of establishing both networked improvement communities was twofold: to expose the state education agencies to a process that could be used to scale initiatives and to engage agencies at a level that would leave them able to use the process with other initiatives. Networked improvement community participants are now focusing on sustainability, using what they learned in the first year as the foundation for maintaining key processes and functions. This report aims to guide other researchers, state education agency leaders, and district leaders as they establish networked improvement communities in different contexts. The following are appended: (1) Sample activities to define the problem and identify root causes; and (2) Frequently asked questions about networked improvement communities.

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