Building Improvement Knowledge and Supporting Change in the Field: Reflections from the Overdeck Family Foundation and Its Grantees

Editors’ Note: This is the sixth blog post in our series featuring reflections on and learnings from the 2016 Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education. Each post provides recaps of sessions you may have missed and further insight into presentations you may want to revisit.

The sixth core principle of improvement science — accelerate improvements through networked communities — gets to the heart of building community and strengthening the commitment to the work of improvement in education. This principle recognizes that we can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone. It reflects part of the motivation of the Overdeck Family Foundation in supporting its grantees to attend this year’s Summit on Improvement in Education and it is certainly relevant to some of the takeaways of the grantees who attended.

The annual Summit represents a great opportunity to network and learn from others as well as to gain perspective on how a networked improvement approach can benefit each organization’s efforts to make a positive impact on education. The 2016 Summit was the second time the Overdeck Foundation invited a group of its grantees and their partners to join. Prior to the event, Anu Malipatil, the Director of Education, noted several things that spoke to her from the previous Summit and what they hoped to achieve by inviting grantees again this year. “Early on in our grant making,” she said, we noticed “that there’s a divide between research and practice,” a disconnect between the findings of research and practitioners’ knowledge of what to do with those findings. Malipatil and the team at Overdeck are committed to “putting research in the hands of practitioners … in their own work every day.” They believe in “building the entrepreneurial spirit of practitioners” and that improvement should be driven by people at all levels in the system. Knowing this to be a significant mindset shift in the field, the Overdeck team continues to see the Summit as an opportunity to introduce and connect its grantees to the work in improvement (with its regard for both scholarly and practical expertise) and to help encourage among them a broader mindset toward applying improvement approaches in their own work.

During and after the Summit, several grantees reflected on their experience at the Summit and shared major takeaways for their ongoing work. Below are brief summaries of conversations with members of four partner organizations.

Improvement should be driven by people at all levels in the system.


Laurie Brotman, Susan Yee, Spring Dawson-McClure, and Demy Kamboukos from New York University’s Langone Medical Center arrived at the Summit with some previous knowledge of and experience with improvement science. In reflecting on why they participated and what they hoped to get out of the Summit, Brotman said that she saw the opportunity as timely given their organizational efforts to scale up ParentCorps, an evidence-based, family-centered intervention to build young children’s foundational skills for learning. For her, Tony Bryk’s keynote on the importance of organizing as a multidisciplinary team and building a common language to support improvement work are critical and relevant to ParentCorps as it works to build a shared understanding among a team of staff with very different disciplinary and experiential backgrounds. Yee noted her appreciation for the “healthy respect for learning and failing” and shared that ParentCorps is interested in creating a learning culture going forward. On the topic of having funder support to attend the Summit, Brotman mentioned that “it’s definitely a different experience; it’s really terrific.” She values the efforts of the Overdeck Family Foundation to connect its grantees with others in its portfolio and to get people “out of their own shops” to network and talk with others working on quality improvement in the field.

Student Success Network

The enthusiasm for networking and connecting was also shared by two staff members from the Student Success Network, also based in New York. Program Director Lucy Herz and Continuous Improvement Coach Ali Slack each had prior experience with improvement science and appreciated the Summit for the additional learning it provided. Herz, who had attended the 2015 Summit as well, noted that this year’s Summit was helpful for them as they think about how to deepen their work with teachers. Slack, who was attending the Summit for the first time, said that being able to see how a variety of improvement tools are being applied and used in broader contexts in education is powerful for building her understanding and in helping her think about what more they can do in their own work. Both attendees are looking forward to applying their learning via a training of trainers model within their own network.

CityBridge Foundation

Newer to the ideas and approaches of improvement science is Caroline Hill, Manager of Breakthrough Schools with the CityBridge Foundation in Washington, DC. Prior to joining CityBridge in January, she was a school principal. She felt the invitation by Overdeck to support her and her school partners’ attendance at the Summit was extremely valuable and “signaled to teachers and administrators alike that their voices are important and should be heard.” While admitting she knew little about improvement science going in to the Summit, Hill walked away with a lot of new ideas and information to support her team’s work, especially about the concept of networked improvement communities and “middle leadership” — the idea that people at all levels can serve as agents of change. Thinking about next steps, Hill acknowledged the “need for more of a shared understanding of what improvement means before [her team] can move forward.” She is also beginning to consider how to bring together diverse stakeholders to address critical problems of practice in her community.

With improvement science, “you’re not expected to get everything perfect the first time, but you are expected to make progress.”

Rodgers Family Foundation

Another person thinking over learnings from the Summit is Greg Klein of Rogers Family Foundation in Oakland, California. For him, the Summit was “a great opportunity to step back and reflect.” He valued the opportunity to be in an environment of learners and compare his prior work and design learning from the at Stanford and IDEO to the frameworks shared at the Summit. Considering what this means for him going forward, Klein feels it will impact how he works with grantees to measure improvement and success over time and how he thinks about reporting back to funders. Greg appreciated that, with improvement science, “you’re not expected to get everything perfect the first time, but you are expected to make progress.”

For these attendees, the Summit was a start on a learning journey to get better at getting better, to develop a new mindset about and to enrich ongoing work supporting education. The Overdeck Foundation’s efforts to support this learning and capacity-building among its partners — and to nurture a network of action research practitioners — has proven invaluable to those who were able to attend the Summit. This year, the Foundation looks to build upon the learning at the Summit by offering grantees the opportunity to apply for technical assistance grants to support ongoing learning and application of new practices in their work to nurture organizational growth. As Overdeck Program Officer Carly Roberts noted, “We recognize the pressure that funders put on grantees for evaluation; we want to be a role model in the field. We’re open to learning from failure and seeing what works.” This is a powerful message for its grantees and for the field in general, and one that Carnegie is happy to echo.