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Developing a "Theory of Practice Improvement" to Implement Networked Improvement Communities

Pacific | May 26, 2022

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REL Pacific is currently working on a series of webinars, coaching sessions, and dissemination projects to support our partnerships and other stakeholders who are interested in NIC implementation.

In our first blog post in this series, we discussed the why of networked improvement communities (NICs). Now, let’s explore the components of building a strong and sustainable NIC, including the important step of establishing a theory of practice improvement—a statement that identifies the problem the NIC will address, the goals of the work, and hypotheses about key factors that the NIC will need to influence in order to achieve the goals.

How Do We Build Networked Improvement Communities?

Building strong and sustainable NICs begins with identifying a network initiation team, which is a group of educators, researchers, and implementation designers who accept responsibility for the formation of a NIC. Their role is to articulate the problem of practice; analyze what is happening in the school system that produces unwanted outcomes (for example, reviewing the alignment of curriculum, instruction, and standards); develop an aim statement—a detailed description of a team’s desired outcomes expressed in a measurable and time-specific way—and create a working theory of practice improvement1, 2 which we’ll talk about more in the next section. The team also secures essential resources (such as data records, publications, and websites), recruits new members, and often engages both academic and technical experts (such as staff training professionals) who are familiar with the specific problem.3 In an effort to support open communication to accelerate learning throughout the NIC, initiation team members establish the processes and norms that govern how individuals and the group will collaborate and the standards that will help them determine if improvements are being made.4

Once a network initiation team is in place, it’s time to start thinking about the key components of starting their work.

The five core components for initiating NICs:

University of Pittsburgh professor Jennifer Russell and colleagues from the Carnegie Foundation and WestEd (Russell et al., 2017) developed a framework5, shown and described below, that identifies five core components for initiating a productive, sustainable NIC.

Diagram of Framework for initiating networked improvement communities

Figure 1: Framework for initiating networked improvement communities6

Build a productive NIC by:

  • Developing a theory of practice improvement.
  • Learning from improvement advisors/facilitators and using improvement research methods.
  • Building a measurement and analytics foundation.
  • Leading, organizing, and operating the network.
  • Fostering culture, norms, and identity consistent with network aims.

Developing a theory of practice improvement: One of the first steps for the initiation team is to thoroughly examine the problem of practice by analyzing the system that produces problematic outcomes. Then they are ready to develop a theory of practice improvement, which is a small, inter-related set of hypotheses about key drivers—factors or conditions that you need to influence in order to achieve the aim or make the improvement—and specific changes associated with each driver.7 This is an important part of launching a NIC, and to help you establish a strong theory of practice improvement, we’ve provided more guidance about this process at the end of this post.

Learning and using improvement research methods: Another foundational task is that team members should learn from each other, as well as improvement advisors/facilitators, the methods used to test, analyze, and refine changes. They participate in targeted trainings, ongoing coaching—such as those conducted in the Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs)—and routines to learn these methods.8

Building a measurement and analytics foundation: A third foundational task is for the initiation team, with the help of expert practitioners and analytics staff, to decide on measurable targets for improvement, establish data collection routines, and identify indicators that will help to monitor progress over time. For example, the Building Teaching Effectiveness NIC initiation team arranged to receive teacher attrition rates and performance ratings from participating districts to create routines for regular data collection, and they developed a survey to evaluate teachers’ self-efficacy and burnout.9 Setting up a system like this will allow the entire team to use the data and analysis to learn and improve.10

Leading, organizing, and operating the network: After developing the previous foundational tasks, the team establishes a shared commitment to a common mission in order to motivate members’ active participation in the NIC. They recruit additional members and get them excited about the work by involving well-known practitioners and experts, making a compelling argument for the importance of the NIC, and providing evidence of early success.11

Fostering the emergence of culture, norms, and identity consistent with network aims: Team members establish norms of participation, processes to convey them, and a persuasive narrative for why the mission and membership are crucial. NIC activities and meetings can be designed to create a sense of belonging and shape member identities in a way that aligns with the NIC’s goals and beliefs.12

There is no set timeline for completing each component, and the development of these components can overlap. Depending on members’ availability and level of organizational commitment to the process, initiating a NIC can take anywhere from several months to years.

A Crucial First Step: Develop a Theory of Practice Improvement

Develop a theory by:

  • Analyzing the problem of practice.
  • Identifying an aim and drivers.
  • Documenting the aim and drivers in a driver diagram.

As mentioned earlier, developing a theory of practice improvement is one of the first steps to undertake, because it grounds the collective work of the NIC by stipulating the problem and aim and analyzing the system that produces the problem.13 Let’s take a look at the elements of developing this theory.

Elements of developing a “working theory” of practice improvement:14

Analyze the problem of practice: Team members engage in an analysis of the system producing the problem to identify components that are major contributors to the problem.15 These problems then become specific areas for focused improvement work.16 Often times, team members use a fishbone diagram (see figure from REL Northeast & Islands below) to conduct this root-cause analysis.

Diagram of Continuous Improvement Toolkit Handout: Fishbone Template

Figure 2: Continuous Improvement Toolkit Handout: Fishbone Template17

Identify an improvement aim and a set of high-leverage “drivers”: The aim and initial set of drivers serve as a framework for evaluating potential courses of action and guides the measurement activity necessary to inform a NIC’s improvement efforts.18

Document the aim and drivers in a driver diagram: The driver diagram identifies secondary drivers that elaborate on specific courses of action implied by the primary drivers.19 Basically, large complex problems are broken down and analyzed in a set of smaller parts. These secondary drivers identify unique “change ideas” that team members can use for practice improvement. Logic models are often used to present a theory of action or change.

Altogether, analysis of the problem and the system producing it and detailing a measurable aim with high-leverage drivers are crucial activities for developing a NIC’s theory of practice improvement. Working theories then evolve over time as the improvement work progresses.

Additional Resources

To further explore the world of NICs and theories of practice improvement, our fellow RELs and colleagues at the U.S. Department of Education offer an array of NIC implementation materials and tools. Here are a few additional resources to get you started:

Continuous Improvement Through Networked Improvement Communities: Our colleagues at REL Midwest provided coaching and consultation on Continuous Improvement Through Networked Improvement Communities to help stakeholders identify programs and practices that support the integration of technology into classroom instruction. A variety of materials, including slide decks and facilitation guides, are available online.

Building Improvement Networks to Support Educational Excellence in Oklahoma: REL Southwest presented an event on the use of networked improvement communities and how their collaborative partnerships applied the principles of improvement science to test, refine, and scale up solutions to identified problems through a series of rapid, ongoing cycles.

Networked Improvement Implementation: The Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Networked Improvement Implementation community of practice (CoP) supports State capacity building and implementation of networked improvement communities within and among districts and schools and fosters innovative approaches to generating and using evidence for continuous improvement. This CoP page features a resource database on various NIC topics.

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 Russell, J., Bryk, A. S., Dolle, J., Gomez, L., LeMahieu, P. G., & Grunow, A. (2017). A framework for the initiation of networked improvement communities. Teachers College Record.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,, retrieved May 10, 2022.

8 McKay, S. (2017, May 4). Five essential building blocks for a successful networked improvement community [Blog post].

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. In M. T. Hallinan (Ed.), Frontiers in sociology of education (pp. 127–162). New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media.

17 Shakman, K., Wogan, D., Rodriguez, S., Boyce, J., & Shaver, D. (2020). Continuous improvement in education: A toolkit for schools and districts (REL-NEI Continuous Improvement Toolkit Handout: Fishbone Template). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands.

18 Russell, J., Bryk, A. S., Dolle, J., Gomez, L., LeMahieu, P. G., & Grunow, A. (2017). A framework for the initiation of networked improvement communities. Teachers College Record.

19 Ibid.


Diana Hirabayashi

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