Networks for School Improvement (NSI) 2020 Update

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Below is an update on the Networks for School Improvement Strategy from launch until now, as well as what is next in building out this work with partners.

I. Our Commitment

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to ensuring that all students—especially Black, Latinx, and low-income students—have an opportunity to graduate from high school and earn a degree that prepares them for a successful career and life. We’ve learned that the best answers don’t come from a one-size-fits-all approach but from empowering school leaders and educators to identify solutions that best fit the needs of their local community.

Since 2018, we’ve made grants to 30 organizations working with networks of middle and high schools in more than 20 states to use data-driven approaches to continually improve their practice based on issues they’ve identified.

We coined the phrase “Networks for School Improvement” to capture our hypothesis that when school teams are able to use continuous improvement approaches to achieve better outcomes for students and learn from each other with the help of a supporting organization, they will advance high school graduation and college readiness and success.

We are committed to sharing our lessons learned through Networks for School Improvement with the broader education community and applying those lessons to our investments. In particular, we want to understand the conditions and methods that make continuous improvement approaches more or less likely to succeed in improving student outcomes across diverse education settings.

II. Networks for School Improvement: From the Beginning

In 2017, the Gates Foundation held a Request for Information (RFI) to learn how intermediaries and secondary school teams successfully use continuous improvement methods to advance postsecondary outcomes for Black, Latinx, and/or low-income students, as well as how to build the capacity of organizations to do this work in the future. We received 278 responses to our RFI. These responses informed the selection criteria for our first NSI Request for Proposal (RFP) in August 2018, which produced the initial NSI cohort.

III. Networks Get Going in 2019

2019 was a big year for the Networks for School Improvement portfolio. Through close collaboration, we learned a lot from our NSIs in this first full year: how they organized themselves for improvement; how they are building the capacity of school teams; the opportunities and challenges those teams face as they develop familiarity with continuous improvement processes, and how networks begin to select, refine, and address their aims. Here are some highlights:

  • The NSI Community of Practice convened three times (February, June, and October), providing continued support to our original cohort of grantees and integrating new members into this vibrant learning community.
  • Last July, we brought together our NSI partners and over 300 educators, researchers, and advocates at the Networks for School Improvement Year One Review event to share their learnings.
  • Our team has focused on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our internal and external work. This work included convening a design team of experts in continuous improvement and equity to create a set of resources and tools to support grantees and the broader field in infusing equity into each step of the continuous improvement process. In the spirit of continuous improvement, we view this as a beta site and are eager to work with the field to refine and improve these tools as we collectively seek to center our work in equity.
  • We evolved our approach to capacity building, launching the Model Design and Initiation portfolio, which seeks to build the capacity of interested organizations seeking to use a networked improvement approach to improve student outcomes.
  • We announced an additional set of NSI partners who received large, multi-year investments. To date, the foundation has made grants totaling more than $240 million to 30 Networks for School Improvement.

IV. What’s Next: Summative Evaluation Design Implementation

Another major undertaking and priority in 2019 was the development of a summative evaluation design. The foundation has learned from past investments that it’s not enough to know whether a specific set of investments yields results. To make long-term progress, the field and the foundation need to understand the nuances of what works, where, and under what conditions. As such, we are committed to learning from this work in the short- and long-term to inform our grantees and the field and to refine our efforts. We intentionally delayed the design and implementation of our NSI summative evaluation to avoid designing, funding, and launching a massive evaluation before having a clear understanding of how the work unfolds on the ground. This deliberate approach allowed us to formulate, vet, and decide upon a summative evaluation design through a series of workshops with 37 evaluation experts from a range of disciplines. It also allowed us to incorporate findings from a formative evaluation.

So, we’re investing in three, tightly linked summative evaluation projects over the next four years designed to yield a cohesive set of findings focused on three big questions:

  • What makes for effective school networks and intermediaries (the organizations that support middle and high schools in their improvement efforts)?
  • How do schools implement continuous improvement activities, and to what extent does participating in continuous improvement change educator practices and school support for learning?
  • What is the impact of Networks for School Improvement on student outcomes?

We more fully describe our summative evaluation strategy here.

V. 2020 Investment Priorities

We are excited that the 30 Networks for School Improvement are up and running, and the work with school teams is beginning to unfold in powerful ways. Given what we’ve learned since the launch of the portfolio and the decisions we’ve made around how to design our summative evaluation, we’re setting the following priorities for our NSI grantmaking in 2020:

  1. Recruiting and onboarding partners to participate in summative evaluation activities.  We are excited to run another NSI recruitment process so that we will have networks and schools participate in the summative evaluation to learn more about what actions are reliably leading to student-level impact.
  2. Continuing to build capacity of partners, districts, and schools.  We want to continue to have open opportunities for organizations to build their capacity in partnering with schools and districts for continuous improvement to improve outcomes for students.
  3. Focus on equity.  We want to continue to do more to bring an equity focus and lens to our grantmaking and other practices and support our partners along their journey.

If you have questions regarding the Networks for School Improvement strategy, please contact us here.