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Using Networked Improvement Communities to Address Problems of Practice

Pacific | March 15, 2022

A group of women in discussion, sitting at a table

Why Networked Improvement Communities?

Networked improvement communities, or NICs, are scientific learning communities in which researchers, practitioners, and other interested partners come together to address a common problem of practice through a focused, iterative approach.

We, and our colleagues across the Regional Educational Laboratory program, are no strangers to using NICs and improvement science to help our partners address pressing education issues. As we draw on the existing literature base on NICs and improvement science to support Pacific Region educators in this newly launched contract cycle, we also hope to contribute to it by leveraging these principles to address your identified needs and priorities, and to share our lessons learned with our—and your—colleagues as we strive together to determine what works, for whom, and under what conditions.1

NICs are:

  • Focused on a well-specified aim.
  • Guided by a deep understanding of the problem.
  • Disciplined by the rigor of improvement science.
  • Coordinated to accelerate the development and refinement of interventions and their integration into practice.

How NICs are Structured

NICs are guided by four primary characteristics:2

  • Focused on a well-specified aim: While NICs are similar to other professional learning communities and communities of practice, they differ in that they focus on achieving a specific, measurable, clearly defined outcome.

  • Guided by a deep understanding of the problem, the system that produces it, and a theory of improvement relevant to it:  It can be tempting to assign an evidence-based solution to an issue without first deeply understanding how the problem presents in your own unique context—what LeMahieu3 refers to as "solutionitis." NICs take the time to deeply understand the problem and the system that produces it, and to develop a theory of improvement customized to their specific situations.

  • Disciplined by the rigor of improvement science: NICs address their identified problems of practice through the use of improvement science, which includes six core principles: make the work problem-specific and user-centered; variation in performance is the key problem to address; see the system that produces the current outcomes; we cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure; anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry; and accelerate improvements through networked communities.4

  • Coordinated to accelerate the development, testing, and refinement of interventions and their effective integration into practice across varied educational contexts: For NICs to influence practice, they not only need to have common aims and measurement systems and adhere to rigorous methods, but also need to be well coordinated across their members to ensure that all participants are able to implement the improvement ideas generated. Knowledge management is key.5

Read All About It!

With that in mind, we’d like to share some resources on NICs and improvement science from our sister laboratories.

Continuous improvement in education: A toolkit for schools and districts: This toolkit, from our colleagues at REL Northeast and Islands, is designed to help school- and district-based practitioners engage in a continuous improvement effort. It provides an overview of continuous improvement and focuses on the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. The toolkit includes tools and resources that practitioners can use to implement a continuous improvement effort in their own schools, districts, or agencies.

Strength in numbers: Closing achievement gaps through collaboration: REL Midwest and its Urban District Community of Practice, in partnership with Detroit Public Television, produced Strength in Numbers: Closing Achievement Gaps through Collaboration. This public television program is designed to raise awareness of the continuous improvement research process as a method to address achievement gaps. The program connects research to practice by sharing the example of Wexford Montessori Academy in Lansing, Michigan, which participated in a networked improvement community facilitated by REL Midwest.

Establishing and sustaining networked improvement communities: Lessons from Michigan and Minnesota: This report describes how REL Midwest and state education agency leaders in Michigan and Minnesota formed networked improvement communities to support state-led efforts to use improvement science to narrow achievement gaps in schools with the widest gaps (focus schools). The report aims to guide other researchers, state education agency leaders, and district leaders as they establish networked improvement communities in different contexts, and includes sample activities to define the problem, identify root causes, and respond to frequently asked questions about networked improvement communities.

Using improvement cycles to promote equitable instructional practices: Oklahoma Excel: The many roles educators take on during the school day can make it difficult for them to identify and implement evidence-based practices that work in their classroom or school. Continuous improvement, particularly the type that occurs through rapid research cycles, is one way of choosing, testing, and adjusting practices in "real time." This infographic highlights how the Oklahoma State Department of Education, in partnership with REL Southwest’s Networked Improvement Communities research partnership, used Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles to try, test, and refine evidence-based instructional practices.

Introduction to Improvement Science: This blog from REL West provides an example of improvement science in action, describing how one school district is leveraging improvement science to impact student outcomes.

We hope you find this information useful as we begin our work together under the new 2022–2027 Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) contract cycle! As always, we encourage you to reach out to us with any questions or requests.


1 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. Harvard Education Press.

2 LeMahieu, P. (2015, August 18). Why a NIC? [Blog post].

3 Ibid.

4 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (n.d.) The six core principles of improvement.

5 LeMahieu, P. (2015, August 18). Why a NIC? [Blog post].


Christina Tydeman

Christina Tydeman

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