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Accelerating Network-Based Change

by Elizabeth Chu, Ayeola Kinlaw & Meghan Snyder - February 24, 2021

This fractured school year has made more visible what students, families, and educators know all too well: Our education system is broken. It disproportionately fails Black, Latino, and low-income children, and there is no silver-bullet solution in sight. The inequities are too complex and entrenched to be remedied by any one-size-fits-all approach. Drawing on innovations long used in healthcare, improvement networks offer a path forward. Improvement networks consist of coalitions of schools and other education actors that use continuous improvement practices to develop solutions for systemic problems, customized to each of their contexts.

Recognizing their promise, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily in Networks for School Improvement (NSIs). Since 2018, the foundation has partnered with 24 intermediary organizations—or network “hubs”—running 32 networks of schools, all focused on increasing the number of Black, Latino, and low-income students who graduate from high school on track for future success. In previous strategies, such as small schools, high standards, and teacher effectiveness, the foundation offered a stronger point of view from which the field was expected to work. With this new strategy, and commitment to evidence-driven continuous improvement in networks of schools, the foundation requires a focus on key student outcomes predictive of postsecondary readiness, but the means to reach success are driven by local context and decisions made by the educators and leaders doing the work.

Our study of the first two years of the foundation’s strategy reveals NSIs’ considerable potential to help schools and districts dismantle barriers to opportunity for marginalized students. The most effective NSIs in the sample strengthened practitioners’ problem-solving approaches, accelerated the spread of solutions within and across schools, and, as a result, had the desired effect on student outcomes.

As we discovered, however, achieving these gains is no small feat. Indeed, to deliver on networks’ promise, hubs must accomplish four separate feats of good management:  

Apply continuous improvement practices to their own network management. Like participating schools, hubs must engage in disciplined evaluation and improvement of their own facilitation efforts—articulating an explicit strategy for managing the network, monitoring and assessing its success in achieving initial expectations, identifying emergent problems, designing and iteratively testing responsive interventions, and implementing at scale solutions that measurably increase overall network efficacy.

Facilitate meaningful cross-team problem-solving and collaboration. Effective hubs must curate relationships between similar schools and institute routines that enable their teams to work together regularly to solve shared or analogous problems. These pairings help cultivate a collaborative culture in which participants recognize and draw on the expertise of their peers.

Rigorously test schools' proposed solutions. Hubs and network participants use disciplined cycles of inquiry to test proposed solutions. After supporting school teams in selecting solutions likely to address the problem at hand, hubs help them develop tests of the solutions. They then coordinate testing across the networked schools, sharing knowledge about ways to tackle common problems and ensuring that the solution’s ambition matches the problem’s complexity. Finally, they assist practitioner teams in collecting and analyzing data sufficient to support sound conclusions from each testing cycle.

Engage systems-level actors. Because participating schools are part of preexisting systems—school districts—hubs must recruit district leaders to engage in the core work of the NSI. These system-level actors join in disciplined cycles of inquiry at both the hub and practitioner team levels when necessary to solve the problem at issue. This participation allows networks to more comprehensively address the problem under consideration, while introducing district leaders to new ways to approach their own management and problem-solving.

Funders can play a crucial role in helping NSIs deliver on their promise and accelerate change. The four management tasks are observable and measurable. As a result, funders can incentivize effective network management by (1) evaluating applicants based on, and having grantees reflect on, their management approach, (2) supporting the development of models and tools for effective network management, (3) collecting and aggregating learnings across networks, and (4) creating a network of networks learning from each other and engaging collective cycles of inquiry of their own.

Funders also are encouraged to align funding levels and timelines to networks’ change ambitions, which can range from enhancing or replacing existing aspects of organizations or systems to restructuring organizations or systems as a whole.

None of these are easy undertakings, but the challenge is worth the effort. NSIs have great potential to mend our broken education system and improve the lives of our most marginalized students.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23612, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 5:44:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Chu
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH CHU, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) and a lecturer of law at Columbia Law School. At CPRL, her focus is on research to enhance the education sector’s capacity to improve and serve all children, particularly those who are traditionally underserved. She earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in educational policy, her MS in teaching secondary English from Pace University, and her BA in English language and literature from Yale University.
  • Ayeola Kinlaw
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    AYEOLA KINLAW provides research, organizational strategy and development, and philanthropic advising services to non-profit organizations and foundations. At CPRL, she has developed strategic plans and measurement frameworks, conducted a formative evaluation of improvement networks, and facilitated trainings on Evolutionary Learning. She has an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a BS from Duke University.
  • Meghan Snyder
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MEGHAN SNYDER is a director of research strategy and policy at the Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL). At CPRL, her research has focused on improvement networks and highly-mobile student populations. She has an MA in sociology and education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BA in international relations from American University.
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