A Gathering of NICs Offers Time to Learn What Works and Share What Doesn’t

In networked improvement communities (NICs), sustained improvement depends greatly upon the culture, mindsets, and relationships across a network. Attendees at the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education have the opportunity not only to learn tools and techniques, but also to share ideas about how to manage the human aspects of improvement work.

The Overdeck Family Foundation recognizes the value in being part of a broader learning community of practitioners. This year, in addition to co-sponsoring the Summit itself, the Foundation brought nearly 20 people from its grantee organizations to participate. Carly Roberts, Overdeck Family Foundation’s program officer for Early Impact, sees the Summit “as a great ‘appetizer’” for their grantees that “helps build demand for and buy-in around this work.” After sponsoring the 2015 and 2016 Summits, Overdeck Family Foundation decided to also administer technical assistance grants to help their grantees apply what they have learned about improvement science to specific education projects at home.

Three recipients of these technical assistance grants — 100Kin10, La Escuelita (Oakland Unified School District), and the Student Success Network — shared their biggest takeaways from the Summit, as summarized below.

Sharing challenges as well as triumphs

The Summit gives attendees the opportunity to share their work and learn from others. But improvement work is never finished and rarely linear, which can be frustrating or disorienting for people who are new to it. Overdeck Family Foundation grantees appreciated hearing their own struggles reflected in others’ presentations. “So much of this work is challenging because it is still emerging,” said Lucy Herz, co-founder and program director at the Student Success Network. “It’s always helpful to hear that some of the things that we are working through are things everyone is working through.”

Kerri Frederick, a teacher at La Escuelita in Oakland, echoed this sentiment, saying that learning about the improvement efforts of others “made me realize that it’s likely ‘messy’ for everyone, which emboldened me to continue down this new path with greater fearlessness.” It can be comforting to know that there isn’t one perfect way to apply improvement science in NICs, but rather a variety of approaches based on specific contexts.

Though 100Kin10 has been working on its NIC for two years, the concepts and practices of networked improvement communities are new to Chief Operating Officer Rob Weisstuch. He appreciated “the perspective that it’s not something that everyone’s figured out and I’m the last to the party. There’s still a lot of work to be done in figuring out how to make NICs effective.”

Building a culture of improvement

A common theme at this year’s Summit was a focus on creating organizational and network-wide cultures of improvement, which is key to effective and sustained change. Ali Slack, the Student Success Network’s director of continuous improvement, shared an important insight: for changes to have a real and lasting impact, a culture that is both improvement oriented and scientific in nature needs to spread throughout the network, rather than remaining the purview of certain teams and individuals.

This spread can only happen when interpersonal and interorganizational relationships and sharing structures are strong and effective. “We need to build relationships within the NIC before the NIC will be effective at solving problems,” noted Weisstuch, of 100Kin10. From the Summit he learned that “building the community comes first, and then we can focus on advancing both individual and collective learning.”

Inspiring and empowering educators

The Summit often serves as a reminder to attendees that improvement science, done right, empowers educators. “This work can truly mobilize organizations and individuals,” remarked Slack, of the Student Success Network. Many educators who learn about improvement science methods, including Frederick of La Escuelita, come to realize that they themselves “have far more control than they believe over educational outcomes.”

The Summit is also an opportunity for reflection, allowing participants to reconnect with the goals of their improvement work — something that healthy networks must do regularly but that often gets lost in the day-to-day work. According to Weisstuch, a major takeaway for 100Kin10 was the need to “make sure everyone in the NIC has a shared sense of the what the goals are, with plenty of transparency so that there’s understanding of those common goals.” The Student Success Network has also taken this point to heart: “The Summit had us thinking about how we can thread common aims throughout all of our programming,” reflected Slack.

For many attendees, their work centers on improving the lives of students, and this ultimate goal was front and center at the Summit. “It was so concrete, clear, and explicit throughout the Summit that improvement science is not an end in and of itself,” explained Slack. Rather, “it’s an engine to help us get better faster so that we can build more equitable experiences for our students.”

Spotlighted Grantees

100Kin10 is a network of schools, companies, agencies, and more; its aim is to train and retain 100,000 more STEM classroom teachers by 2021. 100Kin10 is using their Overdeck Family Foundation technical assistance grant to initiate, execute, analyze, and improve a 6-month early childhood STEM fellowship.

La Escuelita is, as the name means, a “little school” with big goals for its 358 K-8 students, most of whom are English learners, in the Oakland Unified School District. The school takes a holistic, individualized approach to educating all its students. With its Overdeck Family Foundation technical assistance grant, La Escuelita teacher teams are conducting regularly scheduled inquiry cycles focused on a few discrete problems of practice.

The Student Success Network is a community of education and youth development organizations that test and refine social and emotional learning practices to improve student outcomes. Their technical assistance grant from the Overdeck Family Foundation is being used for a fellowship program designed to deepen network members’ use of improvement methodologies.