School & District Management

Most Improvement Networks Fall Short, But They Can Help Districts Adapt to New Problems

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 20, 2020 3 min read
Julie Poetzel, 7th-grade science teacher, works with her students on a genetics project at Falls North Middle School in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Improvement networks can help districts come up with new approaches to educational problems—but more isn’t necessarily better. A new study finds school improvement networks often fall short when it comes to the rigor needed to make sure solutions in one school can apply elsewhere.

“In [continuous improvement] cycles, there’s this idea that you plan, you do, you study and then you act on that. But a lot of the networks drop off the study and act, they just plan and they do, and then they make decisions in the same way they always made decisions ... not based on the evidence that they collected,” said Elizabeth Chu, the executive director of the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia University, which conducted the study.

Continuous school improvement is a cyclical process intended to help groups of people in a system set goals, identify ways to improve, and evaluate change. The approach has gained significant traction since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, whose resulting state plans to implement the law incorporated continuous improvement models, including networks of schools that work together to test solutions to common problems. Over two years, CPRL researchers tracked the progress of nine school improvement networks supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation supports 32 school networks run by 24 intermediary groups to develop ways to increase high school graduation and college and career readiness for Black and Latino students and those from low-income backgrounds.

Most networks decided early on to allow individual schools to come up with and test their own solutions to a common problem of practice.

“They wanted really localized-context-specific solutions,” said Ayeola Kinlaw, study co-author. “School by school, you would see different ideas being tested, but you could not compare apples to apples across the system. The data that was being collected didn’t allow the network as a whole, and certainly not the hub, to evaluate where there were common successes across networks.”

Rather, the two networks that did successfully scale up effective interventions allowed schools to test interventions from a collection gathered together based on scientific evidence, with the goal of figuring out which interventions would work best for different children in local contexts and why. The effective networks also made sure schools tested interventions in common ways that allowed them to compare results across schools and decide which practices should be piloted in new areas.

Network leaders in most cases found it “aspirational” to have all schools collaborating with each other directly, but the researchers found school leaders worked better when paired or matched with small groups testing solutions to a particular problem, which were then scaled up through a central hub. But the researchers found the most effective networks were also those with the most diverse combinations of schools, both geographically, rural and urban, and serving populations of different kinds of students.

“Presumably [as a district leader] you’re joining a network because you want to make decisions and accelerate improvement in ways that you hadn’t before,” Chu said. “And so looking at how the teams are functioning gives you a window into whether people actually are making decisions in different ways. How rigorous is [intervention] testing across individual teams? And to what extent does the process allow teams to learn from each other in a coordinated and meaningful way so that ... you can make smart decisions because you have access to a shared knowledge base that you otherwise would not have access to.”

The researchers recommended school leaders in networks:

  • Focus on equity;
  • Develop rigorous routines to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions;
  • Facilitate meaningful collaboration among groups in the network;
  • Engage district staff; and
  • Reflect regularly to identify and address areas for improvement.
Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Pandemic-Seasoned Principals Share Hard-Earned Leadership Lessons
The COVID crisis has tested principals’ resolve to an unprecedented degree, but many have gleaned valuable takeaways from the experience.
6 min read
Boat on the water with three people inside. Leader pointing  forward. In the water around them are coronavirus pathogens.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management This Intensive Internship Helps Principals Get Ready For the Job
A two-year program in Columbus City Schools gives aspiring principals the chance to dive deep into the job before actually taking the reins.
10 min read
Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School, talks with Katina Perry in Columbus, Ohio on November 30, 2021. Columbus City Schools has a program that lets principal “test out” the principal role, before actually fully taking it on. Through the program, they work in a school for two years under a mentor principal and fill in as principal at different schools during that time.
Katina Perry, right, principal of Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, meets with Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School and Perry's mentor in a school leader internship program.
Maddie McGarvey for Education Week
School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty