Networked Improvement Communities

The latest edition of Research That Matters, "The Power of Partnership," explores how the UW College of Education is working with schools, educators and communities to make learning come alive for all students. The following story about a College partnership supporting communities of educators that spread new knowledge and best practices through entire districts also appears in the online version of the magazine.

It’s a special day at Highline District’s ACE/Global High School.

Science teacher Alison Thomas’s students are tackling osmosis, diffusion, cell transport and other biology concepts in a way designed to make sure every student stays fully engaged with the lesson. They’re trying to figure out a mystery—why a fictional character named “Mrs. Strange” died (hint: blame homeostasis).

But what’s even more special is who’s in the classroom. Thomas and her dozen or so students are sharing space with three other ACE/Global science teachers, Highline’s three district science coaches, UW College of Education Associate Professor Jessica Thompson and UW graduate student Soo-Yean Shim.

By turning biology into detective work, the teacher is using methods designed by Thompson’s team and Highline’s science coaches to make sure every student in the class has an easy way to make sense of what they’re trying to learn.

As the lesson continues, the visitors watch and talk quietly about how the class is going. And when students break into small groups for discussion, everyone pitches in to help.

“If something interesting happens and the teacher wants to talk about it, we can actually take a pause during live instruction and share,” Thompson said. “It lets teachers try new practices and take risks in a supported way—and usually the kids pipe in and are fascinated by the process. Everybody is active. We’re all in it together.”

It’s called Studio Day, and it’s one of more than 80 similar days held this year in Highline middle and high schools.

Studio Days are just one element of Thompson’s multifaceted work supporting ambitious science teaching throughout the Highline district. The project, now in its third year, will soon expand to Seattle, Federal Way, Bellevue and other districts.

A community approach

“Our challenge is to make sure that knowledge doesn’t just live in one school,” Thompson said. “Because systems in place now aren’t designed to help teachers share within schools and across districts.”

To address that challenge, Thompson has helped Highline develop “Networked Improvement Communities” to ensure that new knowledge, along with best practices, infuse the entire district.

“The idea is to develop the whole group—UW researchers, science teachers, district science coaches and principals—to orient the entire system around improving instruction,” Thompson said.

It’s a concept originally developed for the health care industry by the Carnegie Foundation. But Thompson is the first researcher in the country to apply it to instructional improvement.

“Now every secondary school in our district has teams of teachers working on improving science teaching,” said Bethany Sjoberg, one of Highline’s science coaches and a UW College of Education graduate. “They’re able to collaborate and share their learnings with each other. It’s transformed science teaching in our district.”

Getting there takes time

Transforming Highline’s science teaching practices has been a complex, time-consuming process, Thompson said. It incorporated multiple methods simultaneously, and continues to adapt and include new learnings.

Sjoberg said that Studio Days were a great place to start. Besides helping teachers master Next Generation Science Standards, the Studio Days also give every teacher a chance to work on a core set of ambitious teaching practices developed by Thompson and her team.

It also gives teachers a chance to improve their practice without adding more to their demanding schedules.

“Because we do Studio Days during the school day it gives them the opportunity to collaborate and work on improving their teaching while on the clock,” Sjoberg said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re able to engage so many teachers.”

Sjoberg and her fellow science coaches are another big element of the project’s success. Originally, they were funded by Thompson’s research funds to provide a dedicated focal point for the work.

“Jessica helped us create this model of science coaches at the system level,” said Carmen Gonzales, Highline’s STEM director. “We just didn’t have the capacity to do that on our own.”

The coaches have proved so effective that this year Highline decided to make them permanent, and is in the process of taking over their funding.

“Before Jessica started the work we didn’t have science coaches at all,” Gonzales said. “So that’s a big testament.”

The program also created opportunities for all Highline science teachers to come together as a large group to share teaching strategies—something that had never happened before.

Originally these gatherings, called convenings, happened twice a year. Now, they’re happening three or four times a year, Thompson said.

The latest addition to the program is a training program for select 5th and 6th grade teachers in the shared curriculum and practices, so that kids come to middle school better prepared.

“We can’t assume we’re going to introduce a new set of standards and teaching is going to change overnight.” Thompson said. “Sometimes it takes up to three years for teachers to really start collaborating and improving instruction.”

It’s been time well spent. Gonzales said that about 80 percent of Highline’s secondary science teachers have now been trained in ambitious science teaching practices, which focus on helping every student in this very diverse district succeed. Among other benchmarks, students meeting biology end-of-course standards increased from 38 percent to 60 percent district-wide.

All in it together

Collaboration creates sustainability

Thompson said it’s important that as the work evolves, leadership moves away from UW researchers and into the school district, so that it can be permanently sustained.

In the beginning, for instance, Thompson personally led most Studio Days. Now, that role has shifted to the district’s science coaches. The coaches themselves have shifted some of their leadership in networking teachers to individual science teachers, Sjoberg said.

“We plan a lot of our professional development collaboratively with Jessica and her team,” Sjoberg said. “I’ve always felt like my contributions are valued and incorporated into the work.”

“Partnering with the University is a great thing,” Gonzales said. “Jessica opens up my eyes to things I don’t think about because I’m immersed in the work, and vice versa. We learn from one another. I’ve really appreciated that.”

Ready for the future

"The Ambitious Science Teaching Framework has become our framework at Highline,” Sjoberg said. “It’s given me and my colleagues a common vision. It’s provided more coherence in our work. It’s helped in the classroom. It’s helped build capacity among the teachers, and it’s also helped us as leaders be more effective.

“Our work for the last several years has been to build capacity for the Next Generation Science Standards—and I think we really have built that capacity. Our teachers are much more ready than they would have been without the partnership.”


Creating the next generation of ambitious teachers

While College of Education Associate Professor Jessica Thompson has focused her efforts on promoting ambitious science teaching practices in the Highline District, Professor Mark Windschitl has been training the next generation of science teachers in those same practices at the UW—and district leaders at Highline have taken notice.

“Part of the challenge at Highline in the past has been high turnover of teachers,” Thompson said, “They get a new batch of teachers every year, which can feel like the whole system is shaking right underneath them.”

“So many of our new hires come from the UW,” said Highline STEM Director Carmen Gonzales. “It’s really helped us build capacity, and we’ve actually reduced teacher turnover since we started our partnership with Jessica.

“It’s such a nice pipeline. As the UW gets teachers trained in ambitious science teaching, we just want to take them. They’re well trained and come into our district and do really well. We’re always looking for more!”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications