School & District Management Opinion

How Creating Networks Builds Winning School Districts

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 13, 2017 7 min read
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An earlier column explored the power of networks in shaping politics. I was interested in whether the same power could be useful within big organizations. So, I asked University of California San Diego professor Alan J. Daly, who studies networks, and Vista Unified School District superintendent Devin Vodička to describe how they’ve fostered the growth of network relationships within the district and the surrounding community. Not only do they believe that the network relationships are powerful and positive; they attribute the district’s success in the XQ super school project to their network building.

Here is our conversation, edited for easier reading.

Devin Vodička: My perspective—based on research and experience—is that relationships and social capital are the foundation of everything that we do in schools and probably beyond. A lot of good research shows that where you have high levels of trust and strong relationships, there are many benefits for students. And where you have low levels of trust and poor relationships, it’s the exact opposite.

And so when I came in as superintendent, I said to our team that I was going to look at two things: student achievement data and see the attention, time, and energy that we put into the relationships that we had with one another.

Charles Kerchner: On the ground, what does that look like?

Devin Vodička: We spent quite a bit of time helping our team to understand why trust and relationships and social capital were so important. Once we had a little bit of grounding we said, “We would like to do some social network maps of our leadership team, just as a baseline. But one of the things that I learned is that social network studies are very sensitive. So, it was important to have an external partner [like Alan] that was able to collect the data, de-identify it, keep the data apart from our organization, and give us reports [at] the aggregate level that we could use for prompts for conversations, and settings of next steps.

Charles Kerchner: Once you’ve got a sociogram [network diagram], how do you tell a principal of a high school that they aren’t actually the center of the universe?

Alan J. Daly: In fact, we purposely don’t do that. We keep the focus on the system, not on the individual level. It turns out that people are only about 30 percent accurate at figuring out who goes to whom in a social system for resources such as knowledge, expertise, and collaboration. The constellation of relationships that surrounds each of us is complicated and not always obvious and as such most people are not that good at being able to perceive their social field.

Charles Kerchner: Really?

Alan J. Daly: Yes, for example people are pretty good about knowing who is central in a network, and also good about knowing who’s isolated, otherwise, people are just not that accurate. So trying to figure out who is who in each of these network maps is tough and actually not that conducive to overall organizational change. In our work, we try to help people to focus on the system, not the individual. For example, if we identified an isolated person in the map, the system would typically organize around getting [him/her] better connected. “Oh, we need to take that guy out to more happy hours!” But early on we realized that that’s not very effective. It might be helpful for [him/her], but it’s not very supportive for overall change, in general. So rather than asking [how do we help a single person] we ask, “What do we need to do to ensure that everyone is connected into the larger network?” And this inquiry sets you off on a completely different trajectory of action.

Charles Kerchner: Right.

Alan J. Daly: So it doesn’t matter to us that the high school principal who thinks he’s the bomb in the middle of the network, or not. From a systems perspective that doesn’t matter. Rather the question is “How do we create a networked system in which we can diffuse knowledge and expertise?”

Charles Kerchner: So, talk a little bit about what that looks like after you get the network diagram.

Devin Vodička: Yeah, so the—we would get a series of them based on different questions, “Who do you go to for advice? Who do you go to when you want to innovate?” You know, there are different questions that we would ask. “Who’s your go-to person for Common Core standards?” We had a whole set. But for any one of them, we would get a series of dots representing the individuals. Red would be a site person, blue would be a district office person. And then those dots would be connected by a series of lines, and that would create that sociogram, or visual [representation of the network].

So when we mapped out the district [in 2013], it turned out that [as the grapic above shows] Central Office actors were viewed as being highly likely to take a risk on innovation. But what we noticed was that the principals were not identifying each other as being willing to take a risk on the innovation.

Devin Vodička: We didn’t really know exactly why the principals were not seen as taking a risk, but we knew that if we wanted to achieve our vision, we needed that to change.

Alan J. Daly: As we moved forward in time, thing that was really great based in the data is now in Vista [school district] you suddenly you see the principals as the ones who are perceived to be the risk takers, and in some ways more than the Central Office.

Charles Kerchner: It’s flipped?

Alan J. Daly: It’s flipped. So what [Vista schools] have been successfully able to do is to create cadres of principals that are supporting innovative climates closer to where the work of learning and teaching is taking place.

Devin Vodička: One specific example: we asked, “Who gives you compliments?” And then we did social network map on it, and it was like just a bunch of dots that were not connected to each other.

Alan J. Daly: It was distressing.

Devin Vodička: There was very little in the way of perceived compliments.

Alan J. Daly: It was not an easy thing for me to tell Devin. “By the way, nobody’s complimenting each other in your system, and morale is low.”

Devin Vodička: That’s pretty much what it was. So we talked with the group about it, “How does that feel? What do you want to do about that?” And the group committed to doing a better job, each and every one of us of making an effort to compliment people who are doing positive things. And the group suggested that we actually take time in our leadership meetings to do that. So we start now every principal’s meeting with about five minutes where we’re just walking around and give each other compliments. Sounds like a small thing, but it’s part of a change in culture.

The first two years I was in the district, I hired 24 new principals. The last two years, I’ve hired a total of two. Turnover has stopped basically.

Alan J. Daly: Let me put that in perspective. Devin’s urban fringe district serves an extremely diverse student population. Often we see 20 or 25 percent churn a year and Vista had that early on. Now something like 98.5 percent of the folks stay. They have reframed the problem from one of recruitment to one of retention, which has come about through the focus on both the quantity of ties as well as the quality of social connections between and among educators and leaders.

In making this come to life I have noticed that during the Vista leadership meetings, which used to be much more focused on technical aspects of the work, such as reviewing policy or procedure. The district realized that if you had all these leaders together and they never had any time to interact around practice then the meetings were not as effective. So, what they did that was brilliant. They said, “Wait a second. We have to create opportunities for people to bump into one another who might not normally bump into one another because they’re too busy taking notes on the policy and procedure.

The second thing that they did is that—and I’ve observed this firsthand—I’ve watched people get emotional about the work and to be vulnerable with one another and to share when things don’t go so well. Do you understand how powerful that is? People felt safe enough to express their own emotion within that setting and that signaled to others that it’s okay to be vulnerable and vulnerability can be a game changer in that it allows others to take risks and be open. In fact, I’d argue that vulnerability is the new leadership capacity for the 21st Century.

When there’re deep levels of trust, which comes from being vulnerable with one another, I am willing to say, I don’t know how to do this,” or “I tried this thing and it didn’t work,” or “I want to make a difference for kids and I just blew this up.” All of this combines to make for a stronger set of connections and a more innovative climate.

Devin Vodička: So what’s amazing is, when you have the right environment, the team just lifts that person up and says, “We’re here for you. We’re going to help you achieve your dreams,” and that kind of support is, I’m sure, what is leading to the reductions in turnover and a lot of these other positive outcomes. It’s not what I’m doing. It’s what the team is doing for one another.

(The interview will conclude in Tuesday’s post.)

Graphic: Courtesy of Alan J. Daly

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