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It is a Science of Improvement

By Anthony Bryk

A science of improvement (Berwick 2008) undergirds the efforts of our networked communities. Each network seeks to design and test effective interventions while generating learning about how these work, for whom, and under what organizational conditions. A coherent and explicit chain of reasoning guides intervention design. Specific, measurable outcomes create shared targets for the community. Problem solving occurs simultaneously in a diverse network of sites with practical inquiry occurring in each locale as to whether the changes introduced are actually an improvement. This is the level B learning mentioned in our commentary.

In addition, it is now possible to accumulate evidence network-wide because of the use of common frameworks for defining problems and hypothesizing solutions along with common measures for examining outcomes. The breadth of information generated across contexts and participants enhances the possibilities for innovation and expands insights beyond those arising in any one place. Thus, improvement research structures systematic inter-organizational learning (aka C-level activity). Such learning is largely missing in education today where innovation "must be invented here."

We are stuck today between two polar views. A robust infrastructure has emerged for examining narrow, focused propositions through randomized field trials. These studies aim to assess the average effect of some intervention over some non-randomly selected set of sites, but provide little or no evidence as to how and why the intervention may work some places and not others. (Average effect sizes are typically small.) In contrast, action research places local concerns at the center. The strength of such inquiry is the salience of its results to those directly engaged. How others might learn from this and use it remains largely unaddressed.

A science of improvement offers a productive synthesis. It melds the conceptual and methodological strength associated with scientific study to the contextual specificity, deep clinical insight and practical orientation characteristic of action research. It emphasizes multiple, small rapid tests of change by varied individuals working under different conditions. Each test provides a bit of evidence, a bit of local learning. When this activity is organized around causal thinking that links hypothesized solutions to rigorous problem analysis and common data, we accelerate learning for improvement at scale. This is what our nation now asks of us.

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Berwick, D. M. 2008. "The Science of Improvement." The Journal of the American Medical Association 299(10): 1182-1184.

Anthony S. Bryk is the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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