4 Things We’ve Learned About School Networks

©Gates Archive/Christopher Farber

“Ask and Ye Shall Receive” — it’s a well-worn Biblical proverb, but also a good reminder to those of us in philanthropy, and especially in educational philanthropy: if you want advice for how your financial support can have the greatest impact, ask. Ask the teachers, principals, superintendents and others in the field, closest to where the teaching and learning happens.

When we decided last year to make Networks for School Improvement and continuous improvement a key part of our K-12 strategy going forward, it was in large part because we’re persuaded by the evidence and powerful examples driven by educators on the ground that supporting networks of schools focused on locally-driven solutions has the power to improve outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students and drive social and economic mobility.

In our work, we see networks as partnerships between schools and an intermediary organization — which could be any type of organization, including a non-profit or for-profit, community-based organization, district or charter management organization (CMO), or a university — joined together to help the schools identify problems, collaborate on locally-driven strategies to tackle those problems, set targets for improvement, and then work together and learn together to make the approaches more effective and improve student outcomes.

While that is the vision for school networks our foundation will be funding — and we are currently accepting proposals to form our first wave of Networks for School Improvement — that’s not to say that school networks all look the same and function the same way. What’s true of schools is also true of networks — they all have their own unique context. What approaches work best? What types of networks are emerging? Most importantly, what do we need to know to be as smart and as impactful as possible in our grantmaking? Before we issued a Request for Proposals, we asked the field: how have you formed networks and used continuous improvement to improve student achievement in grades 6–12?

The response was tremendous. We received 278 responses from 41 states. More than half the respondents were new to us: sixty percent of the responses were from organizations with whom we had no history or prior funding relationship. This kind of geographic diversity and hearing from organizations that were new to us was so important because we could see how this kind of approach was taking shape in so many different ways across the country.

This summary document captures the key themes across the responses and how they informed our proposal process, but I want to highlight here a few that jumped out at me as consistent insights across the responses we received:

  1. Networks form in different ways and come in different shapes and sizes.

In looking across the responses we received, it was clear that the “origin stories” of how existing networks were formed varied quite a bit. Some networks formed out of pre-existing relationships between schools, while others were already joined together through a district or a charter management organization (CMO). This illustrates that there is no one “right” way to form a network and that approaches can vary.

The size of the networks was also an area where we saw differences among existing networks. While the networks we are looking to fund will typically include anywhere between 20 to 40 schools, the respondents we heard from noted that such large numbers of schools in a network are not the norm.

This was an important insight that we’re planning to address in two ways: 1) providing larger networks with the technical assistance they need to support the information sharing and skill-building that is critical to success given such large groups of schools. 2) We are also looking to make shorter, smaller grants to intermediary organizations to help them refine their models within smaller networks of 10 or so schools and work within a reduced scope of work before they look to grow.

2. Networks use “aim statements” to guide their work, but often aren’t explicitly equity-focused. An aim statement is a specific and measurable goal that the network commits to accomplish by a specific date. Not only does this provide a “true north” to focus the work of schools and the network as a whole, but it’s also a clear metric to regularly measure progress against.

In the responses we received, networks developed their aim statements in different ways. Some set their goals using existing student performance benchmarks, while others incorporated district goals in creating targets for their schools. In some cases, school leadership teams took time during the formation of the network to set school-specific targets which were then rolled up into an overall network aim.

©Gates Archive/Christopher Farber

Few of the respondents we heard from focused their work on a problem of practice that would improve outcomes specifically for Black, Latino, and low-income students. Given our foundation’s commitment to addressing structural and systemic biases that can disadvantage Black, Latino, and low-income students, we will expect our partners in this work to share our clear commitment to equity. We will also encourage them to invest in developing diversity in their own workforce and leadership teams.

3. Networks often use different models and definitions for “Continuous Improvement.”

Our foundation defines continuous improvement as a process for understanding a specific problem of practice and addressing it by developing, testing, and refining promising solutions. However, that definition could be applied to several different models of continuous improvement. In fact, through the RFI we heard about 87 different continuous improvement models being used in the field, including some you may have heard of before, such as Model for Improvement, DataWise, Six Sigma.

While most of these models all have similar attributes — such as regularly bringing instructional teams together to analyze data or making sure there is time set aside to reflect after a new strategy has been tested — we developed and published a tighter definition of continuous improvement when asking for funding proposals so that organizations applying to form networks could assess whether their thinking aligns with our preferred models. We also learned that it’s difficult to assess whether different models are actually aligned without having a detailed understanding of the specific steps involved in the process. That’s why we’ll be asking applicants specific questions about this as we look to make grants to form networks.

4. Building buy-in at the school and community level is critical.

A common thread across the 278 responses we received was the need to engage schools early in the process of forming a network. Respondents told us about the importance of deeply engaging school teams (principals and teacher leaders) who wanted to participate, who shared a vision and understanding of the common problems they grapple with, and who were eager to put new strategies in place to address those problems. A networked approach requires that the work is done with, not to schools. That’s why we’ll be asking organizations submitting proposals to answer questions about how they will create a shared vision and strategy.

Another through-line was the importance of engaging the broader community in the work. That includes working with out-of-school partners, college and university partners, or union representatives to leverage the strengths unique to the schools’ local communities. We were humbled and excited to learn about the great work already being done in this area.

This is an incredibly exciting time in the history of our foundation’s work in education. At the same time, we recognize that we aren’t the first organization — or even the first philanthropy — to invest in school networks. We know that if we are ultimately successful in helping students get the high-quality education they need to cross the bridge to opportunity, it will be because we are building on the incredible work that is happening in schools and within networks today. We asked, and we received: we are extremely grateful to those networks, organizations, and schools that shared their experiences and wisdom with us. We look forward to continuing as allies and partners together on this journey.