Improving Improvement: Testing Theories of Institutional Capacity Building

September 23, 2021

This is the fifth installment of Improving Improvement, our quarterly series focused on leveraging the power of research-practice partnerships (RPPs) to build schools’, districts’ and states’ capacity to improve.

In our first year or so of writing for NNERPP Extra, we have shared an overview of our improvement work, lessons learned from working with existing partners during the pandemic, lessons learned from creating and launching an improvement-focused RPP in response to the pandemic, and results of pandemic-year interventions. We also argued for using stimulus funding to invest in an improvement infrastructure with RPPs playing a central role. 

In the next few installments, over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, we will again be writing about engaging partners in improvement work during a year filled with unknowns, but with a more explicit focus on how we are helping states and districts make continuous improvement an embedded practice rather than an add-on. We begin here by laying out the work ahead for our partnerships and the questions we hope to answer this year. As the school year progresses, we will update you with lessons we learn along the way and share any insights we hope you might find useful. We’ll close out the year with reflections on how it all went.

New Partnerships & New Networks

Our goal is ultimately for our partners to make evidence-based continuous improvement –including piloting and evaluating interventions– part of the ordinary course of business in their agencies. Toward that end, one lesson learned from three-plus years working with districts and charter management organizations (CMOs) is that building individuals’ competency in the key elements of continuous improvement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for full adoption. Educators work within an institutional framework that often creates barriers to the kind of practices we promote. For example, after guiding partners through a full improvement cycle last year, we asked whether they would continue using the practices on which we worked with them. One partner answered that they could do it but most likely wouldn’t. There were several reasons they cited but a key one was that competing pressures and priorities get in the way of the type of deep thinking our process embraces: the classic “urgent vs. important” argument.


Read more at NNERPP.