A Powerful Change Strategy

By Jacqueline Raphael
January 2019
Two teachers walking down a hallway and looking at a notebook

Unlike “sharing” networks, in which educators discuss ideas and share resources to help meet individual needs, education improvement networks (also known as “execution” networks) bring groups together to solve systemic challenges, such as closing achievement gaps.

In an intentionally designed education improvement network, members hold a common view of the system that needs to improve, and they commit to collectively developing, testing and refining multifaceted solutions.

Through sustained, systemic effort, they produce knowledge, as well as products and tools. That knowledge is generalizable across contexts because it is developed by attending to individual contexts.

The impact of networks stems, in part, from the connections educators build—often across schools.

According to a growing body of research, when educators systematically learn from one another and create knowledge together, they are more likely to successfully turn theory into practice.

Such collaboration also contributes to high levels of collective efficacy (the belief that teachers, together, can meaningfully improve student learning). A strong predictor of gains in student achievement, collective teacher efficacy can be developed in or across schools.

Cross-school networks such as the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) Network, supported by Education Northwest, can give teams of educators from different schools the types of experience that strengthen their confidence in the results of their collective action. Team members can then share their experiences and confidence with their colleagues back home.

Key Strategies

Bring in an experienced intermediary partner to serve as the “backbone”

Often, state or local education agencies sponsoring a network will turn to an outside partner (such as Education Northwest) to serve as the network’s backbone organization.

The backbone provides the leadership guidance and technical support needed to build a focused, sustainable network.

To that end, the backbone organization assists in planning, managing and reporting on the network’s in-person and virtual meetings. It also provides technical assistance and research-based resources to reinforce the leadership group’s decision-making processes and member learning.

In addition, the backbone organization may provide ongoing program evaluation services that measure the network’s effectiveness, as well as supports for communicating and disseminating the learning generated by the network.

Lastly—and perhaps most important—an effective backbone organization must embrace the idea that high-performing and sustainable networks need to be member-driven.

Put another way, a good intermediary partner builds the capacity of the leadership group to direct the network.

It’s crucial for members to freely collaborate with minimal outside interference. Our role as network organizer is to provide essential logistical support so members can focus on the work of the network. We also bring in network experts … as partners who help the network meet its goals and provide participants with access to evidence-based practices and outside examples. We steer lightly, helping empower the network to develop its own direction. As a result, we have seen the steering committee and other network leaders, over time, take more and more ownership of the network.

Design your network with intention

Getting a network off the ground is a process that starts well before the participants first come together. Based on a detailed literature review, we recommend an intentional, evidence-based design process that focuses on these elements:

  • A shared vision, goals, and problem of practice
  • Network membership criteria
  • Structures (e.g., virtual, face to face) for collaboration
  • A leadership team
  • Resource development and sustainability
  • Supports for network participation
  • Regular evaluation and data use
  • Generating and sharing knowledge and results

These elements help establish a common purpose for the network—and they create a common language that becomes useful in member communications and when bringing new participants on board.

Because state and local education agencies often don’t have the in-house expertise or available staffing hours to fully engage in the design process, establishing these elements is another role a backbone organization (such as Education Northwest) can facilitate.

Start small

Based on our experiences as the backbone organization for growing networks and helping them achieve sustainability, we recommend starting with a small number of participants.

We also recommend having a recruitment strategy based on working relationships with prospective participants, experience with networks, and commonalities (such as similar school and/or community characteristics).

Bringing together an initial cohort of participants with these qualities can help a network develop its own identity, direction and communication style.

After the cohort is well established, add new members slowly so as not to overwhelm the existing network.

With NW RISE, recruitment now happens naturally, often with members talking to peers about this vibrant community that they helped create and now lead.

Learn from the evidence

When network members participate in evaluation activities, become invested in the process and learn from the data, it can lead to positive and powerful change.

Along those lines, evaluation should ultimately be part of a continuous improvement process that embeds data into decision-making.

One approach is to use a theory of action (developed collaboratively by the network’s leaders) to track the network’s story over time. The theory of action can help specify what data to collect and when to collect those data through various measures, including surveys and qualitative reports.

Early on, network leaders may hesitate to collect data (for example, evidence of student achievement, classroom instructional artifacts and member perceptions) because they fear participants might feel vulnerable, or they may worry about distracting from the network’s core purpose.

It won’t take long, however, for members and sponsors to feel the need for data and evidence to improve the network, monitor progress toward goals and determine return on investments.

Accordingly, we have found that it is important to build in evidence gathering early—but not before members are ready.

We believe education improvement networks are a powerful strategy for overcoming pervasive challenges in our schools, and we are dedicated to assisting state and local education agencies in establishing well-designed, member-driven networks that are sustainable and effective.