Learning communities provide unique opportunities for discussion, reflection, and growth. This is one of the reasons collaborative learning networks have been a focus of Learning Forward’s work for decades.

In the past year, COVID-19 has presented many new challenges for educators, not only in teaching and connecting with students but in their own learning from one another. The necessity of physical distancing has required all of us who engage in networks to be nimble and adapt our strategies to an online environment.

Although frustrating, this need can be turned into opportunities to productively change the way we work. Now is the time to redefine not just how students learn, but also how we as educators create systems and processes to better support adult learning, collaboration, and collective impact. We can double down on the “why” of engaging in networked improvement efforts to benefit students, families, and communities.

That is the philosophy of the Texas Network for School Improvement (TxNSI) Hub, a collaboration among Learning Forward, Educate Texas, and the Dana Center to enhance middle school educational opportunities, especially in math. The hub supports a network of Texas schools working to increase the percentage of Black, Latinx, and middle schoolers experiencing poverty who are academically and behaviorally on track to graduate high school ready for college and career success. The hub focuses on supporting schools to use continuous improvement processes to accelerate equitable changes.

We believe that those processes can still thrive in the unexpectedly virtual world in which we now find ourselves. To understand how, Michelle Bowman, Learning Forward’s vice president, networks & content design, recently participated in a panel discussion about the pivots needed to support learning in an online setting. The other panelists were Ryan Gallagher, director of continuous improvement at High Tech High in San Diego, California, and Karen Zeribi, founder and executive director of Shift, which uses improvement science and human-centered design to support systems change.

To continue the learning from the panel, convening partner Catalyst:Ed developed the report A New Paradigm for Collaboration: Virtual Network Support to capture the lessons from network leaders on facilitating virtual network support and collaboration through an equity lens. The tool on the following pages is based on that report.

As we stressed during the panel and in the report, it is essential to embed equity throughout the work of continuous improvement, whether in person or online. Having difficult conversations about race and equity was already daunting in person. The addition of the remote setting can seem like an insurmountable barrier.

However, given the demands of a global pandemic, the disparate impact this has on people of color and communities experiencing poverty, and the systemic racism that underlies that impact, we must ensure that we are having these conversations, even if we have to have them in a virtual space. Now is the time to open our eyes to differences, take time to acknowledge and appreciate them, and learn from them.

You can use the tools here to create an online space that makes it possible to focus on continuous improvement with an equity lens.

We encourage users of the tools to keep in mind a comment Bowman made during the panel discussion: “We need to go slow to go fast.” It takes time to build relationships, establish trust, and support one another. Taking that time will allow long-term progress and ongoing continuous improvement.

Virtual network support tools can be downloaded here.





About TxNSI and its partners

TxNSI is one of 30 improvement networks nationwide to receive the Network for School Improvement grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With this grant, we are able to connect with similar organizations, share and learn new strategies, and access high-quality technical assistance providers to deepen the work — a great benefit, especially as COVID-19 changes the needs of our students and families and the way we can support them.

Each member of the collaborative brings unique strengths to the partnership: Educate Texas serves as the network convener and provides analytical support, Learning Forward brings its expertise in professional learning and continuous improvement, and the Dana Center provides subject matter expertise and technical assistance around mathematics education and equitable student success.

Catalyst:Ed, which wrote A New Paradigm for Collaboration: Virtual Network Support based on the continuous improvement panel, draws on education leaders’ collective expertise to help them innovate, excel, and scale to deliver breakthrough results for all students. To accomplish this, Catalyst:Ed:

  • Builds and activates diverse networks of expert talent vital to the health and impact of education organizations;
  • Connects education leaders with the right expert support to spark innovation and build capacity;
  • Creates shared resource pools that all organizations can benefit from; and
  • Disseminates critical information to build knowledge, while fostering greater accountability and a focus on results.

Learn more at To read the report on which this tool is based, see

Image for aesthetic effect only - Rohini-mckee-150x187-1-108x135
Associate Partner at Catalyst:Ed | + posts
Image for aesthetic effect only - Michelle-bowman-092021
Senior Vice President, Networks & Continuous Improvement | + posts

Michelle A. Bowman is senior vice president of networks and continuous improvement at Learning Forward. She engages in and executes cross-organizational strategic thinking, especially through the strategy of networks and communities of practice, that supports state and local education agencies committed to professional development redesign. She also oversees the development of content and learning designs that support organizations' capacity to engage in continuous improvement processes. With 30 years in public education, Michelle served in leadership at the district, campus, and classroom levels before joining Learning Forward. Michelle has an Ed.D. in Learning and Organizational Change from Baylor University. Her dissertation investigated how school district leaders engaging in a community of practice impacts their professional learning efficacy. She also co-authored Teacher Professional Development in the Digital Age: Design and Implementation of Learning without Limits in Technology in the Classroom: How It Can Improve Teaching and Student Learning in American Schools (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) with Learning Forward Executive Director (retired) Stephanie Hirsh. Michelle refreshes her soul, mind, and body by singing songs of worship and spending time with family and friends. She enjoys great coffee and long walks.

Categories: Collaboration, Facilitation, Implementation, Learning communities, Online learning, Technology

The Learning Professional

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