Help Me, Help You: Districts Network Together to Solve Common Challenges

With the recent launch of the Read to be Ready campaign in Tennessee, there’s been a lot of buzz around the challenge we face with early literacy and what can be done to improve outcomes for our students. Each year in Tennessee schools, more than half of our students complete third grade without becoming proficient readers.

The good news is, we are certain that third graders in Tennessee are just as capable as third graders anywhere. We know we have the talent and the will in our schools and districts to take on this challenge with a renewed energy. But, there is no silver bullet. It is going to take a lot of hard, intentional, collective work to accomplish our goal of having 75 percent of third graders proficient by 2025. It’s also going to take us all learning how to improve faster, and finding new ways of working together towards this goal. We can tackle it together, pooling our collective learning and experiences to get better even faster.

This is why we have decided to form Networked Improvement Communities, or NICs for short. Our NICs will consist of teams of people from different school districts within a geographic region coming together to generate solutions to improve literacy. Their goal will be to find effective approaches to improve third grade reading proficiency that can be scaled statewide.

The first thing that NIC members will do is deeply study the problem as it exists in their own context. They will examine the different paths students took that led some to proficiency and others not. They will study the factors in their classrooms, schools, and districts that varied in each of these students’ experiences and their impact on outcomes. Too often we jump from a problem to a solution, or even multiple solutions, without truly diagnosing why we have the problem, leading us to chase down solutions that don’t actually change anything.

With a deep understanding of the problem, network members can then develop realistic theories about what is causing the problem in their local context and what things approaches they might try to fix it. Each district will go back and try out the solutions they came up with, and use a disciplined method to track what is working and what is not, and try again. Network members will come together regularly to share their successes and failures, to learn from each other’s experiences. It is through this “networking” that districts and schools will learn faster and improve faster; each district will learn from each other rather than having to learn each of those lessons on their own. In this network, failure is not something to avoid, but rather it’s a critical learning opportunity, without which we’ll  have a longer road to improving reading outcomes.

The application process to join one of the first two networks in the East and Upper Cumberland regions is wrapping up, and we anticipate having four districts participate in each of these regions. Our goal is to expand these networks into other regions of the state in the coming years.

Districts that are interested in participating in NICs in the future can learn more by contacting their CORE office.