Networks for School Improvement: A Review of the Literature

Study finds that successful networks rest on a strong foundation of relational trust and use timely evidence from early outcomes to support improvements to interventions

New York, NY [August 23, 2018] — The Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) at Columbia University released “Networks for School Improvement: A Review of the Literature,” which offers a critical review of the research on improvement networks (“networks”), their outcomes, and the factors that influence those outcomes.

CPRL produced the report in conjunction with the Networks for School Improvement (NSI) initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (“the foundation”). An NSI is a group of secondary schools working in partnership with an intermediary organization to use a continuous improvement process to increase significantly the number of Black, Latino, and low-income students who earn a high school diploma, enroll in a postsecondary institution, and are on track in their first year to earn a credential with labor-market value. The aim is to improve outcomes that are predictive of high school graduation and postsecondary success. Secondary school teams work collaboratively to identify, test, and refine solutions that target a problem and reach an aim common across the network.

In January 2018, CPRL received a two and one-half year grant to report on the research underlying the NSI initiative and to use the research to design and conduct a formative evaluation of the initiative’s initial implementation. The report is the most comprehensive review and analysis of the literature to date on school improvement networks. In it, the authors systematically analyze 34 studies that examine 25 unique education networks, along with the insights of a number of academic experts, to identify outcomes related to the quality of the networks, efficacy of the school systems involved in the networks, and growth in student performance.

Key findings include:

  • Of the studies that analyzed network quality, a majority found improvements in collaboration and the use of data; similarly, among studies that examined the efficacy of school systems, a majority concluded that networks positively affected distributed leadership structures and faculty performance.
  • Few studies measured the relationship between the network and improvements in student performance.
  • Successful networks rest on a strong foundation of relational trust and use accessible and timely evidence from early outcomes to support improvements to solutions and the testing process.
  • Barriers to network success include rigid rules and strict accountability systems that limit decision-making and action to a few individuals who may not be active participants in the network.
  • Time is a critical determinant of success: Participants need time to learn and apply continuous improvement practices as well as to engage in network activities; results need time to appear, especially those related to student outcomes.

"Some of the strongest, and in a way, revolutionary, conclusions in these studies were about the importance of relational trust,” said Jessica Wallenstein, lead researcher and report author. She continued, “It is critical that network participants feel comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their practices, outcomes, and even frustrations, and that they value and respond to the feedback they receive from other network members.”

CPRL’s report will inform aspects of the foundation’s NSI strategy. As practitioners, policymakers, and funders increasingly turn to networks to improve schools, the report offers them important insights into the supports and barriers to effective networks and guidance on how to set-up, monitor, and assess efforts networks.

Read the full paper here.


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About Center for Policy Research and Leadership

The Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL) is a partnership of university-based professional schools that works to revitalize public education while reinventing professional education. CPRL provides talented education, law, management, and policy students with rigorous coursework and skills training and engages them in research and consulting projects to ready them for challenging careers enhancing the education sector’s capacity to improve the outcomes and life chances of all children, particularly those of color, from low-income households, or otherwise traditionally underserved. CPRL’s highly rated professional services run the gamut from evaluative research to strategic initiatives to enhance organizational learning to content areas such as personalized and socio-emotional learning, teacher preparation and retention, early childhood education, and school integration. To date, CPRL has completed more than 100 research projects; formed partnerships with two dozen professional schools; and prepared more than 300 students, with some 70% of its graduates serving public education and allied organizations.

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