In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Perspectives on Educational Innovation and Improvement Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overview of Improvement Science in Education
  • Context and Capacity for Improvement in Education
  • The Critical Policy Analysis Lens: Power and Politics in School Improvement
  • Complex Role of Intermediaries in School Improvement Efforts
  • Social Context and Diversity
  • Democratic and Community Engagement and School Improvement
  • Critical Issues in Design-Based Research, Critical Turn in Learning Sciences

Education Critical Perspectives on Educational Innovation and Improvement Science
Huriya Jabbar, Joshua Childs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0243


In recent years, education has undergone an improvement and innovation revolution; where reformers, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have been undertaking efforts to do education better and differently. Innovation in education often focuses on understanding and providing pathways that will prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s economy. Innovation efforts include STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics), edtech, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence that are able to accelerate student learning, and school competition that promotes organizational efficiency. At the same time, educational improvement efforts have focused on enhancing school policies and practices. Modern improvement measures in education have centered on implementing systematic changes that would revamp the delivery of education, the services necessary for students to succeed, organizational structures, human or social capital, or curriculum and assessments that would increase student outcomes. Both improvement and innovation have come to symbolize and usher in a new wave of educational practice and policy, one that focuses on student learning outcomes and teacher quality and disrupts the traditional ways that schools operate and are organized. However, improvement-focused educational research has paid limited attention to how race, class, and gender fit within this emerging canon. The schools and districts that are often the targets of improvement efforts have student and teaching populations that are diverse, including large proportions of low-income families and people of color, yet the individuals and organizations promoting and funding improvement science are more often white and affluent. Indeed, the field of improvement-focused educational research has yet to attend to issues of race, class, and gender to its fullest potential. The next phase of improvement science research would be wise to understand how issues of race, class, and gender should be measured, implemented, and accounted for within improvement science processes, models, and practices. Recent research in STEM, and school improvement indicates that there is potential to explore issues of educational equity and diversity. To create sustainable changes that expand opportunities and experiences for students of color, the theory and practice of improvement-focused educational research must move beyond a narrow focus on reducing achievement gaps. This means that improvement-focused educational research will have to evolve in ways that incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy, address issues of re-segregation in schools and districts, and increase the democratic participation in education and educational improvement. There is potential for improvement-focused educational research to draw from traditions in critical policy analysis, the geography of opportunity, and the role of elites in education reform to highlight the potential for improvement efforts in education to be inclusive and collaborative among diverse stakeholders, and to interrogate issues of race, class, gender, and power that can create sustainable change. Efforts such as collective impact galvanize multiple stakeholders in an improvement science process. To this end, we explore what it means to engage historically marginalized and disempowered people as active collaborators in serious educational efforts, as well as the issues around race, gender, structural inequality, power, and democratic control in the context of educational innovation and improvement.

General Overview of Improvement Science in Education

To provide context, we first review seminal pieces in the improvement literature, noting how they do or, more often, do not attend to issues of race, class, and gender, as well as areas where critical perspectives could provide important insights. A key component of improvement efforts, such as research-practice partnerships, networks for improvement, and continuous improvement models, consists of relationships between actors and a reliance on social interactions to set, evaluate, and revise goals. However, such relationships can be contested, warranting a closer look at power dynamics within and across such networks. These articles describe a set of related reforms that fall under the broad umbrella of “improvement science,” as defined by LeMahieu, et al. 2017. In particular, Bryk, et al. 2011 and Dolle, et al. 2013 examine continuous improvement and networked improvement communities, and Coburn and Penuel 2016 examines research-practice partnerships. They describe the motivations for these approaches to school improvement: how they differ from prior reforms and begin to identify places for the field to move next. Given our focus on critical perspectives in the improvement literature, our exploration of these studies resulted in more questions than answers. As LeMahieu, et al. 2017 notes, “a central question” in improvement science is “whether and how interventions can be made to work in the hands of individuals working under varied conditions” (p. 19). Furthermore, most studies discussing the engagement of multiple stakeholders in improvement efforts do not include parents and students in meaningful ways, with the exception of the book by Goldman and Kabayadondo 2017 on design thinking, yet these stakeholders could play a significant role in improvement efforts. Finally, Dynarski 2015 outlines how improvement science can assist in the school-improvement efforts required under current federal policy, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

  • Bryk, A. S., L. M. Gomez, and A. Grunow. 2011. Getting ideas into action: Building networked improvement communities in education. Carnegie Perspectives. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

    This article details how the Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle can be employed in improvement networks, where there is collective agreement to use results to constantly refine targets. This article uses Carnegie’s Statway Network as a case study.

  • Coburn, C. E., and W. R. Penuel. 2016. Research–practice partnerships in education: Outcomes, dynamics, and open questions. Educational Researcher 45.1: 48–54.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X16631750

    This article is a review of empirical research on research-practice partnerships (RPPs) in education and other fields. Although there is evidence of success of the interventions developed in other fields, research on the impact of RPPs in education is sparse and narrowly focused. The article closes by framing a research agenda for investigating RPPs to include: outcomes as yet un-researched, comparative studies, targeted studies of strategies, and the political dimensions of partnerships.

  • Dolle, J. R., L. M. Gomez, J. L. Russell, and A. S. Bryk. 2013. More than a network: Building professional communities for educational improvement. National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook 112.2: 443–463.

    A case study of a networked improvement community to improve the success rate of community college students in developmental math. Argues that NICs are a way to give life to design-based implementation research, creating a mechanism for the improvement of systems.

  • Donovan, M. S. 2013. Generating improvement through research and development in education systems. Science 340.6130: 317–319.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1236180

    This article argues that for key problems in education to be addressed, research must be shaped around a problem of practice, with interdisciplinary teams and school systems that are open to meaningful experimentation. The article discusses some challenges involving parents and obtaining buy-in: but only to ensure parents are supportive of the experiment, not to engage them as key stakeholders in the process.

  • Dynarski, M. 2015. Using research to improve education under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Economic Studies 1.8: 1–5.

    The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has positioned new approaches when it comes to implementing school-improvement efforts. However, many educators have argued that some research fails to either be useful or understand the contexts/realities that they engage with daily. In this report, Dynarski discusses improvement science as a way to tackle some of the local context issues that prior research has missed. Furthermore, Dynarski argues that in order for improvement science to be effective (and viable), it has to connect with existing research that identifies effective programs and practices at large. This report signals how improvement science can align with current federal policies and serve as an example of how research can be useful in informing school improvement efforts under ESSA.

  • Goldman, S., and Z. Kabayadondo, eds. 2017. Taking design thinking to school: How the technology of design can transform teachers, learners, and classrooms. London and New York: Routledge.

    Describes design thinking, a problem-solving process that emphasizes empowering the individuals that the product, service, or solution is designed for (i.e., students). Discusses reimagining power, by pushing for “radical collaborations” that can be bottom-up as well as top-down. Includes examples of application of design thinking in schools.

  • LeMahieu, P. G., A. S. Bryk, A. Grunow, and L. M. Gomez. 2017. Working to improve: Seven approaches to improvement science in education. Quality Assurance in Education 25.1: 2–4.

    DOI: 10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0086

    This article compares seven quality improvement science approaches (Networked Improvement Communities, Design-Based Implementation Research, Deliverology, Implementation Science, Lean for Education, Six Sigma, Positive Deviance), exploring commonalities and highlighting distinctive purposes. The goal is to enable practicing educators to best choose among the approaches for particular situations.

  • LeMahieu, P. G., A. Grunow, Baker, L. E. Nordstrum, and L. M. Gomez. 2017. Networked improvement communities: The discipline of improvement science meets the power of networks. Quality Assurance in Education 25.1: 5–25.

    DOI: 10.1108/QAE-12-2016-0084

    This paper presents the historical development, theoretical foundations, core principles, and adaptation of the Network Improvement Community model. The NIC model, developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, combines improvement science (a formal methodology for improvement as a part of an organization’s continuous quality-management practices) and networked science (collective social leaning toward solving complex problems). The paper ends with a case study in Austin Independent School District.

  • Lewis, C. 2015. What is improvement science? Do we need it in education? Educational Researcher 44.1: 54–61.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X15570388

    This article defines improvement science as the study of the connection between knowledge and improvement, and it offers two examples from education. Although improvement science requires collectively defining problems and their causes, it is unclear what factors would protect against dominant groups naming and solving problems without meaningful participation from marginalized groups. This literature often assumes that shared structural positions alone will lead to shared conversations.

  • Park, S., S. Hironaka, P. Carver, and L. Nordstrum. 2013. Continuous improvement in education. White Paper. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

    This paper serves as a guide for what continuous improvement in education actually entails, organizations involved in the implementation of improvement efforts, and the commonalities and differences among them. One takeaway of the paper is that continuous improvement processes are different depending on who is in charge of implementation, the population(s) being served, and the desired targets and outcomes that are trying to be achieved. When it comes to organizations’ involvement in continuous improvement efforts around education issues, they are either involved at the (a) instructional level (classroom or schools), (b) system-wide level (district), or (c) community level.

  • Silva, E., and T. White. 2013. Pathways to improvement: Using psychological strategies to help college students master developmental math. Palo Alto, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

    This report discusses how policymakers, researchers, and educators are focused on accountability and ways to increase student performance and persistence in school. Furthermore, the report focuses on understanding a shared practical improvement aim around increasing the proportion of students who successfully complete developmental mathematics, rather than on advancing a theory or testing a predefined program.

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