Building a Culture of Improvement in the Context of External Accountability

Editors’ Note: This is the fourth blog in our series on networked improvement community (NIC) initiation. In it, we spotlight issues related to building a culture that supports the successful launch of networked improvement work. This focus corresponds with the fifth domain of effort in our NIC Initiation Framework. In order to enliven this discussion, we asked leaders from the Network to Transform Teaching (NT3—initiated and maintained by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards) to reflect on their experience initiating a NIC.

Currently in education, especially K-12, there is an emphasis on accountability and a pressure for rapid, large-scale implementation. National debate continues to rage over the use of testing for student and teacher evaluation, and we hunt for elusive silver bullets. Within this context, the Network to Transform Teaching (NT3) was formed with the goal of transforming the teaching profession by developing and strengthening systems to make accomplished teaching the norm, with National Board Certification[1] and board-certified teachers integrated into the fabric of schooling.

The NT3 networked improvement community (NIC) was convened by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and began with four state members (Arizona, Kentucky, New York, and Washington) and two school district members (the Albuquerque Public Schools and the San Francisco Unified School District). The National Board serves as the network’s Hub, providing centralized coordination, support for member engagement in improvement research, and analytic services. The Hub is supported by partnering organizations: the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which provided technical assistance, and the American Institutes for Research, which provided evaluation and formative feedback.

Through NT3, the National Board and its partners seek to systematically build teacher effectiveness across the career continuum to ensure all students receive an excellent education. We envision a career continuum that is anchored in a series of steps beginning with supports for preparation and induction, leading systematically to accomplished teaching and National Board certification, and ultimately resulting in the spread of the professional expertise of accomplished teachers through leadership roles. Through a network that includes diverse partners working in varying contexts, we seek to learn how to adapt and spread the innovative practices developed by the network, thus enabling spread and scaling by states, districts, and schools across the country.

Building an Improvement Culture: Challenges and Opportunities

To advance our ambitious goals, NT3 members needed to embrace new professional norms and identities as well as develop a network culture focused on learning and improvement. When initiating NT3, the National Board Hub dedicated time and attention to creating a culture that focused on improvement by valuing both the successes and the learning that comes from early, small-scale failures. In the remainder of this post, we highlight two challenges we faced in building our NIC’s culture and the actions we took to overcome these challenges.

Improvement in an Accountability Context

A core challenge faced during the initiation of NT3 was the fostering of shared responsibility for systemic improvement in the context of the education sector’s current commitment to externally-driven accountability. For example, in several of the partner states and districts, new teacher evaluation systems are in the process of being implemented. By and large, these are not seen as systems that will promote professional responsibility, but rather emphasize a top-down approach wherein management will “hold teachers accountable.” External accountability pressures are a challenge to building an improvement-focused culture for several reasons. True innovation and improvement requires experimentation and occasionally failure, yet many accountability contexts discourage exploration for innovative solutions because they include punitive consequences for failure. Second, many current accountability systems hold individual educators accountable for outcomes, which is in direct tension with a focus on collective responsibility for performance.

A core challenge faced during the initiation of NT3 was the fostering of shared responsibility for systemic improvement.

Starting Small to Scale Fast in a Rapid Implementation Context

A related but distinct challenge in building the culture within the network is the conflict between an improvement approach and the more traditional project implementation approach. The latter conceptualizes the network’s work as an additional program off to the side of the system’s work—a discrete set of activities funded by a grant. An improvement culture, on the other hand, focuses on the system as a whole and its optimization. It prioritizes shorter cycles of inquiry combined with systems thinking—both of which require different mindsets for those engaged in the work. Participants used to project implementation were eager to detail out a multi-year plan and were tentative about setting ambitious goals. The shift to rapid cycles of inquiry raised key concerns among participants of “Do we know enough to get started?” and “How will we reach the goals if we don’t have a complete roadmap?” Systems thinking challenges typical program development and administrative thinking, as it requires participants to deeply engage with existing problems and craft sustainable adjustments to how the system operates. The shift to this kind of thinking required an uncomfortable confrontation with what is not working and a melding of perspectives from different stakeholders in the system.

NT3’s Culture-Building Work

To date, we have employed a number of strategies to build a culture of improvement, getting NT3 members to identify with our aims and see themselves as drivers of the network’s agenda. We highlight a few illustrative examples in the remainder of this post.


State and district partners, particularly those with classroom teaching experience, come to this network with a deep belief in reflective teaching, a core competency of Board-certified teachers. Board-certified teachers often credit the certification process itself with sharpening their ability to reflect upon and improve their practice. It is not until the certification process that many veteran teachers have the opportunity to closely analyze their teaching, articulate the rationale for their instructional moves, and target opportunities for ongoing improvement. Building from the reflective disposition of accomplished teachers has proven to be a catalyst for learning to apply improvement principles. To explicitly draw out these connections, the Hub has built and tested a training that introduces the Six Core Principles of Improvement in the context of the National Board’s Five Core Propositions that form the foundation for accomplished teaching. This activity, and the discourse around it, is supporting network partners to take on an identity that embodies a commitment to practical improvement, an essential component of building the NIC culture.

The network embraced the mantra “possibly wrong and definitely incomplete”.


Formation of a network-wide identity and culture that embraces failure required that the Hub lead the way in modeling the relevant aspects of an improvement mindset. To do so, the Hub regularly shares works-in-progress with the network for critical feedback and refinement. Inspired by the Carnegie Foundation, the network embraced the mantra “possibly wrong and definitely incomplete” from the very outset. In particular, the network uses this phrase to describe works-in-progress such as the theory of practice improvement, which is continually evolving based on new learning from both within and outside the network. During the planning phase, the shared aims and theory for the network underwent multiple iterations: the Hub scanned the field and created a “definitely incomplete” version for network members to respond to, feedback was collected and incorporated, and the products were ultimately strengthened. This collaborative, democratic process has served to strengthen the cultural norms of iteration including incomplete and error-full drafts. Network members report that they see the Hub modeling the improvement stance, which better enables them to bring it to life in their own context.


Grounding our work in concrete data from measures that matter to the participants is the critical foundation for mobilizing improvement work and building a shared understanding of what’s working, for whom, in which contexts. This element came to life in the sharing of real-time data on teachers pursuing Board certification. Initially, the focus was on understanding the existing conditions in each state or district. As the Network moved from initiation to operation, the focus on the data shifted to real-time measures of teachers signing up for candidacy for Board certification. Measures that addressed the steps in the certification pipeline that teachers progress through provided a focused way for participants to understand the effect of their improvement efforts, to discuss specific problems that could be targeted for action, and to share improvements that had worked to solve those identified problems. By ensuring common definitions and presenting the data publicly, partners were encouraged to look to others both for what was working well that they could adapt to their environment and what challenges others faced that they had already solved.

Attention to culture, norms, and identity is essential to successful network initiation.

Our experience suggests that attention to culture, norms, and identity is essential to successful network initiation and ongoing development. NT3 provides one case of how some of the cultural tensions inherent in improvement work were navigated in the course of initiating a networked improvement community. Given its focus on teaching, it encountered the need for significant mindsets shifts: from a context of external accountability to one of shared responsibility, and from rapid implementation to learning to improve. The experience to date demonstrates that the development of a culture, norms, and an identity that best support this work is, in and of itself, improvement work. It is never done. However, with concrete interventions targeted to the high-leverage elements of what constitutes an improvement culture, progress can be made. Others looking to develop these networks would be well served to attend to and prioritize the work of culture-building as a key component of what’s required to develop, test, and spread breakthrough improvements.

[1] Created by teachers, for teachers, National Board Certification is the profession’s mark of accomplished teaching; teachers achieve Board Certification through a voluntary, peer-reviewed, rigorous, and performance-based assessment of multiple measures of their teaching practice.