Imagine a school where teachers are fully empowered and trained to effectively identify and address the most complex and challenging problems that stand in the way of improving student achievement in their community. Through working toward this vision, New York City schools can build an environment where teachers are meeting students’ needs and making real progress on student outcomes every day.
Teachers in New York City have long engaged in inquiry work, concentrating on classroom practice and student work to authentically problem-solve in honest, rigorous ways. Inquiry is research based and posits that teachers should try something, examine the results, and then decide whether to revise or adopt the new practice. It is deeply rooted in the idea that when educators work together, student evidence should guide their instructional work. We applaud schools for engaging in this challenging approach.
Improvement science is a way to problem-solve that is a natural extension of the overall inquiry process and builds upon its strong history and tradition. While it is related to inquiry, we believe it has unique features that make it a compelling approach for NYC schools right now. Improvement science is not promising a one-time cure—it is a process that asks teachers to identify the problems they want to solve and gives them the tools for disciplined and structured problem-solving. Some unique features of improvement science include:
- Teachers truly understanding the exact problem to be solved before looking for solutions. Teachers are asked not to jump to the quick conclusions they naturally draw, that is, to avoid “solutionitis.”
- Looking at small changes—sometimes tiny changes—instead of large-scale shifts in practice. For example, the small change could be an interaction between one teacher and one student. Then, based on the data the teacher collects, the teacher may want to try a change with three students, then six, and so on.
- Teachers acting as researchers and engaging in very rapid cycles of learning. Often the changes can be implemented within a few days, reviewed and improved, and tried again within one or two weeks.
- Learning from doing and trying, rather than relying exclusively on outside research or prepackaged solutions.
- Looking for embedded evidence and observing real-time formative data all around; not waiting for summative data. The check for a change in improvement science is “how,” not “if.” The question we engage in is not “if” the change worked or did not work, but “how” the change worked and what we learned from it.
- Leading real change in schools. Outside expertise is useful, but teachers know best about the context of their school community and students. Improvement science honors the idea that problems need to be solved locally, in context, by teachers working individually and collaboratively with their peers.
- Questioning the practice, making mistakes, and sometimes failing. Learning from missteps is fundamental to improvement science.
By harnessing teachers’ natural problem-solving abilities and curiosity, improvement science can help address overall student achievement. Improvement science is a local approach to improving student outcomes to prepare students for success in their primary and secondary schooling and eventually in their college studies and careers. Equally important, improvement science honors teachers for their professionalism and agency as leaders in their schools and communities.
Improvement science happens locally through the work of teacher teams, but it comes to life in Networked Improvement Communities (NICs). NICs are intentionally designed social organizations where educators from multiple schools and levels of the school system come together to work on a common problem. Like professional learning communities, where each participant comes together to learn alongside like-minded professionals, NIC participants learn from each other and with each other. A distinct feature of the NIC is that participants are working toward a shared aim. This work is critically important because we know that school systems are complex and good practices aren’t easily adaptable to local contexts. Without a focus on the necessary local adaptations and adoption, successfully moving a practice to scale becomes impossible.
Through sharing and collaboration, NIC members marry the improvement science problem-solving approach and the power of testing with learning across multiple school contexts. NICs treat variation in outcomes and contexts as learning opportunities, not obstacles. Through the NIC, teachers gain expertise in how to make practices work reliably and build relationships to spread and sustain the work.
While the goal of the NIC is to innovate solutions that work for all our students, the heart of the work is the educators bringing their experience, their drive, and their openness to learning from each other when facing a complex, seemingly intractable problem.
The handbook is a publication of the New York City Department of Education.
Lead Author: Sam Milder
Contributing Author: Benjamin Lorr
Editors: Courtney Smith, Julie Leopold, and Laurel LeFebvre
Key Contributors: Natalie Pennington, Marilyn Stotts, Lainey Collins, Rhena Jasey, and Alida Maravi
Web Designer: Melissa Cardinali