Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation, Solving Problems Together: Findings from the Early Stages of a Networked Improvement Community, is a three-article case study of the initial stages of a Networked Improvement Community built around the practices in personalized learning schools.

Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) are a type of research-practice partnership that tackle how to sustain and scale change across school communities. Research on how they are initiated is needed as this model is adapted across a range of contexts. Case studies in particular provide the depth of exploration to understand what aspects of the NIC model worked in a particular context, for whom, and under what conditions. This dissertation explores how the NIC initiation team designed processes to identify a common problem of practice, to allow participants to share their expertise, and to facilitate trust-building interactions. I argue that a key task for NIC initiation is to design processes that facilitate the kinds of collective problem solving needed for large-scale change. This contributes to the framework for NIC initiation (Russell et al., 2017) and research on research-practice partnerships more generally (Coburn & Penuel, 2016).

In 2011, Tony Bryk, Louis Gomez, and Alicia Grunow proposed a new model for improving educational systems at scale: the Networked Improvement Community (NIC). A NIC is described as a social reorganization of research and development (R&D) activities. They argue that R&D needs a new approach to tackle the complex and systemic nature of the problems that schools face. NICs aim to (1) identify and understand the problem that needs solving, (2) bring together a “diverse colleagueship of expertise” (Bryk & Gomez, 2007, p.19), including researchers and practitioners, and (3) structure the social arrangements through a disciplined inquiry approach called improvement science. In contrast with traditional R&D, NICs are explicitly driven by problems, rather than theory; begin with small, iterative testing, to learn from the variation in outcomes (LeMahieu et al., 2017); and achieve scale by the coordination and combination of these small tests through network partners from different contexts. With growing interest in the implementation of networked improvement nationally and internationally, how to initiate this model with integrity is critical (Russell et al., 2017).

Each article then takes up one of the three guiding questions set forth by Bryk and colleagues (2011): what problem(s) are we trying to solve?, whose expertise is needed to solve these problems?, and what are the social arrangements that will enable this work? As the authors note, these three questions are seemingly straightforward, but have complex answers in how NICs are implemented in the real world. As such, the goal of this dissertation is to illuminate how NICs are an achievable, social reorganization of R&D and research at the network level can produce know-how for getting ideas into action.

These three questions are each taken up one article of this dissertation and connected to a different aspect of the NIC initiation framework (Figure 1) through the instrumental case student of PiPNIC, the Personalization in Practice – Networked Improvement Community. The first article examines how the PiPNIC initiation team identified a problem of practice in listening to educators and educational leaders across the state. Drawing on qualitative data, the analysis traces how the activities of the initiation team narrowed the problem space and selected a problem of practice. The second article examines how the NIC activities supported participants in sharing their problem-based expertise, illustrating how the design of the NIC activities created the conditions for ideas to be generated, selected, and integrated through the coupling of network and team design tasks. Finally, the third article explores how collaborative design fostered help-based interactions, and how these social arrangements may provide the conditions for participants to build the relational trust necessary to solve hard problems. Each article addresses practical and theoretical considerations for initiating NICs.

The three articles come together around the same phenomenon (initiating a NIC), yet each makes distinct methodological and theoretical contributions. By organizing this inquiry as an instrumental case study, the goal is to produce insight in the spirit of continuous improvement, rather than an evaluation of whether NICs “work.” As such, this case contributes to the collective effort to leverage the wisdom of research, practice, and design knowledge to improve educational systems for each and every student they serve and for the people who work in them.


Bryk, A. S., & Gomez, L. (2007). Ruminations on Reinventing an R&D Capacity for Educational Improvement. Paper Presented at the American Enterprise Institute Conference, “The Supply Side of School Reform and the Future of Educational Entrepreneurship,” 1–44. Accessed: January 14, 2019.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. Frontiers in sociology of education. 1, 127-162.

Coburn, C. E., & Penuel, W. R. (2016). Research–practice partnerships in education: Outcomes, dynamics, and open questions. Educational Researcher, 45(1), 48-54.

LeMahieu, P.G., Grunow, A., Baker, L., Nordstrum, L., Gomez, L.M. (2017). Networked improvement communities: The discipline of improvement science meets the power of networks. Quality Assurance in Education, 25(1), 5-25.

Russell, J. L., Bryk, A. S., Dolle, J., Gomez, L. M., LeMahieu, P., & Grunow, A. (2017). A Framework for the Initiation of Networked Improvement Communities. Teachers College Record, 119(7).

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