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Communities of Practice as a Technical Assistance Strategy: A Single-Case Study of State Systems Change Open Access

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This study examined how one state approached the integration of policy and practice by forming communities of practice (CoP), defined as groups of people who share a set of problems and interact regularly to solve them (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Policymakers have created strategies known as technical assistance (TA) to bridge the policy to practice gap by helping states build capacity to assist local districts (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). However, current TA is inadequate to meet the demands of complex systems (Danielson, Ryder, Brown, Chelemer and Hammond, 2006). State officials stress the need for an infrastructure that facilitates access to local expertise, and allows for customization of assistance strategies to sustain change (Markowitz, 2004). Michigan formed a CoP to solve implementation problems and enable systems change.The design focused on the state-based CoP as the unit of analysis to answer these questions: (a) Why would a state choose to address persistent problems through CoP?; (b) How does the state enable a CoP to form?; (c) How does the CoP enable problem-specification across general and special education environments?; and (d) How does the CoP support the articulation of actionable strategies? A document review, expert panel, and interviews were used for triangulation of results. The document review data was examined in relation to a theory-based logic model, and the expert panel validated the content analysis and interview protocols. Two types of interviews were used to complement the content analysis: (a) elite informants with specific expertise on CoP, and (b) purposeful interviews with community conveners, reflecting on the CoP structure and function. The interview data review adhered to an a priori coding technique (Weber, 1990) based on Parsons' systems change framework (1997), connecting community activities to the outcomes sought. State policymakers' reasons for forming CoP were consistent with existing research. Strategies that enabled state communities to form are presented along with examples of actionable strategies for change. Indications of success include (a) alignment of efforts across general and special education, (b) efficiency of policy implementation, and (c) student-centered policy changes that led to increased school persistence and higher course pass rates.

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