Learning Our Way into Better Education Systems

Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation and co-author of Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, gave the opening keynote on March 3rd at the Carnegie Foundation’s second annual Summit on Improvement in Education. During his address, Bryk starkly laid out the problems with the ways that many educators have tried to improve schooling and advocated for a new way of learning to improve.

Bryk began his talk with a case study of how 19th century New Yorkers sought to address inconsistent water conditions in the city that were causing one in fifty to die of cholera. A diverse group of experts identified a common problem, worked together as a team, and tested promising new ideas in order to create a whole system that worked. Today, New Yorkers enjoy an ample supply of what has been called the “champagne of water.”

Today’s educators could learn a thing or two from this case, Bryk argued. He outlined the severe problems facing our education system, in which two out of three eighth graders cannot read proficiently and three out of four twelfth graders cannot write proficiently (NAEP, 2011). The problem is not necessarily due to a lack of good ideas or insufficient effort from our nation’s teachers and educators. Instead, time and time again in education, we have wasted good ideas, large amounts of money, and the good will of practitioners by implementing fast and learning slow.

“Education has a learning problem.”

As Bryk said, “Education has a learning problem. Today, a rapidly increasing number of new ideas are being thrown at schools in hopes that something sticks without the practical knowledge, human capabilities, and will to make most any of these things really work.”

Bryk then presented a better way: learning to improve through the use of improvement science in networked communities. Using cases in which these ideas have shown success in healthcare and education, Bryk offered six principles that undergird this new way of working:

Be problem-focused and user-centered

Starting with one simple question—“What is the specific problem we are trying to solve?”—forces one to resist jumping to solutions and to instead focus on the work that people do and the problems they encounter while doing it.

Attend to variability

Switching from asking “What works?” to asking “What works, for whom, and under what conditions?” allows us to learn how to achieve success reliably for all students by adapting and integrating effective change for every school and classroom.

See the system

Our demands on educators are growing, adding immense complexity to our educational systems. By viewing schools as systems, we can do better to learn what is actually producing the outcomes we observe.


Not only do we need data to make visible the effects of our changes, we also need more of a specific kind of data: practical measurement embedded in actual work processes to enable faster and more focused learning.


Through using multiple cycles of inquiry in which changes are first tested on a small scale, we can learn about what works for different groups while being deliberate about when and how to scale changes.


Coordinating collective action across a diverse network allows us to learn more together than even the best of us can learn alone.

“Imagine a future in which learning to improve is occurring every day in thousands of settings.”

Bryk argued that, gathered together, these six principles can enliven a community of educators working together to solve the important problems facing us today.

With these principles in mind, Bryk called for action from all who seek improvement in our schools: practitioners need to be actively engaged in the improvement of their classrooms as opposed to passively accepting of changes from above; researchers need to bring their theory and methodological skills to collaborations with practitioners; and policymakers need to make environments safe for educators to learn from failures and use that learning to drive improvement.

In the end, Bryk asked the audience to “imagine a future in which learning to improve is occurring every day in thousands of settings.” Students in New York drink the “champagne of water,” but, as Bryk asks, don’t they also “deserve the champagne of education?”