Supporting the Next Wave of Equity-Centered Improvement: Introducing The Learning Lab for School Improvement Teams

by Leona Christy, CEO at Catalyst:Ed 

Leona reflects on the lessons and ideas Catalyst:Ed has encountered within our work with networks for school improvement (NSIs) as we approach the launch of The Learning Lab.


Three summers ago, Jennifer Husbands and I sat down over coffee to map out what it would look like to help intermediaries supporting networks for school improvement as they built their capacity. Jenn, a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, had reached out to us to help identify capacity-building supports for the grantees of the foundation. We started off by asking ourselves questions that were focused on these networks for school improvement (NSIs): How would we help them identify their capacity-building needs? How would we match them to customized supports? How would we capture and share learnings with the NSI community as a whole? How might we ensure that there was a focus on equity throughout the work? As we brainstormed ideas, however, we saw a bigger opportunity, and we wrapped up by asking ourselves: How might we amplify the impact of our efforts with the NSIs and leverage the insights and resources generated from this work to benefit the sector as a whole? 

Catalyst:Ed’s Learning Lab for School Improvement Teams is our answer to that question. Over the last three years, we have had the privilege of working alongside practitioners at the forefront of this work as they strengthened their capacity to facilitate critical improvement work in hundreds of schools, districts, and networks across the nation. The Learning Lab distills the lessons learned from our collective experiences and makes it available to any educator, leader, or network convenor interested in integrating networked improvement practices into their work at the classroom-, system-, or community-level. It also offers customized guidance, actionable resources, and scaffolded supports, so improvement teams can steadily build their capacity for equity-centered improvement work. Finally, it offers improvement teams the opportunity to access support from thoughtful and experienced providers supporting equity-centered improvement work. 

In developing the Learning Lab, we relied on three key principles:

  • Spark delight: Continuous improvement is often associated with processes, protocols, norms. It isn’t, however, often associated with delight. We wanted to change this, and create a resource that evokes joy and playful experimentation without sacrificing rigor. The Blueprint for School Improvement Teams with its colorful “dancing bars” was an opportunity for us to translate this principle into practice. It takes our research-based, yet practitioner-oriented Framework for Improvement Teams (previously known as the Intermediary Capacity Assessment Framework or ICAF) and converts it into a fun, accessible tool that invites teams to reflect on where they are in their improvement journey, as a first step towards receiving a customized report with suggested actions and resources.  
  • Provide scaffolded and multi-layered supports: As educators, we intuitively recognize that our students need different supports depending on their interests, capabilities, and learning styles. Yet, we often forget this principle when we think about adult learning. The Learning Lab leans into the idea of providing scaffolded supports – based on their Blueprint, improvement teams are matched to resources and can also access tailored technical assistance from a vetted service provider from the Catalyst:Ed network. In the future, we may also leverage the Learning Lab to help improvement teams at the same stage of evolution connect with each other. 
  • Center equity: We know from experience that an explicit and steadfast focus on equity is critical in order to ensure that improvement practices do not reproduce the inequality and racism embedded within our schools. We saw many ways to place equity at the center of this work: Our Framework for Improvement Teams includes not just “Inclusive Culture” as a capacity group (which includes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Student Agency; and Family Engagement) but also embeds a focus on including the voices of the people and communities being served across all the capacities. The Blueprint articulates specific “equity considerations” for teams at each level and for every capacity group. The Resource Library includes a collection of resources focused on equity-centered continuous development. And, finally, our provider network includes diverse providers who bring a range of vital experiences and perspectives to the work. 

While we could not have anticipated the ravages of this last year when we started off on this journey, the launch of this Learning Lab could not have been more timely. It feels more important than ever that those who are closest to the work are empowered to prioritize critical challenges, find new solutions and incorporate them into predictable routines, measure progress in seamless ways, and share what they’re learning with others. We see the Learning Lab as a living resource, continually surfacing and amplifying the insights and resources that emerge as a result of our collective efforts. We invite you to join us on our journey! 

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