Focusing on Common Problems and Solutions: What We're Seeing in the Networks for School Improvement Work

School Improvement Work
Vivian Mihalakis
Blog Post

How can student voice be centered in schools? How can teachers be empowered to grow and learn on the job? What kinds of information do schools need to look at on a regular basis to know if students are on track to succeed in education after high school?

These are just some of the questions 38 networks of middle and high schools across 23 states are asking—and answering—across the Gates Foundation Networks for School Improvement (NSI) portfolio. Together, nearly 600 schools serving 155 school districts and more than 150,000 students are using data driven continuous improvement approaches to increase on track outcomes for students who are Black, Latino, or experiencing poverty.

Despite the unprecedented educational disruptions of the past three school years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the networks have gained momentum and many bright spots are emerging. The foundation recently released a paper describing some of the ongoing work and learning to date. This analysis draws on data shared from networks – including network artifacts, reports, and briefings, as well as interviews and other materials to identify learning and trends. A formal summative evaluation is underway, with the first report expected in 2024.

So far, four trends stand out across networks:

  • As they’ve gained experience, learned from each other, and responded to the effects of the pandemic, the majority of the NSI have begun focusing on common problems and solutions across schools in their networks, reducing variation in the evidence-based practices and measures that school teams use. This increases the likelihood that schools can share and learn from each other.
  • Increasing the frequency of structured inquiry cycles so that educators can learn more quickly which evidence-based practices should be adopted, adapted, or abandoned remains a challenge across Networks. This was particularly true given the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there are early signals that improvement networks with shorter, more frequent inquiry cycles are seeing increases in interim measures.
  • Most networks are still in the process of developing measurement systems, particularly near-term measures of change, to tell whether the evidence-based practices they implement are leading to improvements.
  • In some sites, changes are extending beyond individual schools to influence the larger system, such as modifications in student grading policies and alignment with other district initiatives.

Across the improvement networks that are making progress on near-term measures, we observe six common themes:

  • They stick close to the research. These NSI center their work on bridging the knowing/doing gap and work with school teams to integrate and adapt research and evidence into their practice.
  • They focus on equity. They all have equitable, culturally relevant policies and practices as cornerstones of their work.
  • They are organized to take advantage of cross-team learning. These NSI provide school teams with a set of research-based practices that is large enough that schools can enter in contextually relevant ways, but not so large that each school is testing something different.
  • They have shorter, more frequent testing cycles, so they can learn quickly which practices to adopt, adapt, or abandon. These NSI tend to have weekly or biweekly testing cycles, in some cases even running daily cycles, which means they can test many practices in a school year.
  • They have common, aligned measures that let them know early and often if changes are leading to outcomes. These NSI have a system of measures that are common across schools in the network, align to the network’s theory of improvement, and bridge the gulf between very near-term, individual practice measures and lagging student outcome measures.
  • They’re learners. Each of these NSI study their own work and consistently and strategically make adaptations to increase their effectiveness as the organizational hub supporting schools. At the same time, they’re deepening their own continuous improvement and measurement expertise and considering other approaches to solving the problem at hand.

As we note in the report, Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, recently described the district’s continuous improvement work as the “strategic identification of levers—and notice I said plural, there’s not one singular thing in a system—into a synergy that yields results for kids.” We are excited to see how this work is yielding results in districts across the country. Read more in this new report here about the Networks for School Improvement and their work to support students.

Vivian Mihalakis is a Deputy Director with the K12 team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She began her career as a high school ELA teacher and prior to joining the foundation, held several leadership roles with the Institute for Learning (IFL) at the University of Pittsburgh. She holds a Ph.D. in Instruction and Learning from the University of Pittsburgh.