By Stacey Caillier & Ben Daley, High Tech High Graduate School of Education

At High Tech High Graduate School of Education, for the past five years we have been leading and participating in networks of educators aimed at collectively making progress on common problems of practice. A central tension in improvement networks is the role of collaborative decision making. Initially, we were overly stuck in a frame that held that “top down is bad; bottom up is good.” Because of our constructivist views of learning and our democratic impulses, we were loath to be seen as top down, out of touch, senior leaders. However, several years into this work, we began re-thinking this overly simplistic dichotomy and want to share two of our key learnings.

Start with a clear, narrow aim. We learned this the hard way. We launched our first college access network with an aim that was deliberately broad and unfortunately imprecise. Then we supported each team to pursue their own unique aim, many of which were only tangentially related to our broader goal. However, this breadth is problematic if you want to function as a network and actually improve something for a specific group of students. For example, it was difficult to establish a common set of measures to assess our overall progress and impact, and few schools had the data structure in place to track disaggregated data relevant to their aim. Furthermore, there was no authentic reason for teams to share their work or learning.

We did not want to over-specify the aim before we gathered everyone in the room. This was not a bad instinct. However, we have watched ourselves and others spend years trying to build consensus on a network aim. Now we know in some situations, it is better to launch a network with a clear statement of the problem/issue you want to address and a clear aim (i.e. what do we want to accomplish, for whom by when?) so that interested people, schools, and districts can choose to join or not. Caveat: This makes sense if you are leading a network that people can opt into or out of; this learning may not play out quite as well if you are a district requiring schools to participate. In this case, network leaders may very well need to do more consensus building on the front end to build investment in the work. However, either way, a key learning for us is that if you’re not doing common work in service of a shared aim, you’re not functioning as a network that improves things systematically.

Give people a place to start and celebrate the early wins. Similarly, in our early networks, we thought it was important that participants brainstormed all of their own solutions (usually using copious amounts of post-it notes). While there is wisdom in that, we have learned that many busy educators actually appreciate learning about effective practices that have worked in other contexts. As the network leaders, we have begun taking responsibility to identify high-leverage practices that are grounded in research, address key root causes, and have already been adapted successfully across diverse contexts. We launched our math network and our current college access network with a concrete aim, key drivers, and a preliminary change package (i.e. a set of research/evidence-based practices for the network to iterate on). We then supported teams to engage in their own root cause analysis and to better understand their systems so that they could adapt these practices for their own contexts. By providing a clear direction and a place to start, we could get moving quickly and accelerate the learning.

To be clear, we are not advocating for launching a network with a bunch of top-down directives that rob educators of their agency and creativity. And providing a starting set of practices doesn’t mean that novel ideas are off the table (we love this protocol for generating high-leverage change ideas). It just means that every team is also testing, adapting, and refining some common high-leverage practices. This facilitates authentic opportunities for sharing and learning from variation. It also helps to generate early wins, which are empowering and crucial to building a high-functioning network. Publicly celebrating these wins helped us spread effective practices/adaptations and maintain momentum when the work is tough.

As constructivist educators, we are nervous to share these learnings. We know how we would have reacted to ourselves five years ago: “Oh, these people just don’t understand the need to include all voices in decision making to build shared purpose and for people to feel invested” (cue quote from Paulo Friere or John Dewey here). Of course, there is something to that point, and we still drop our fair share of Friere and Dewey quotes. And, we have been surprised to realize that when the direction is clear and compelling (even when people haven’t invented it for themselves), it is much easier to get going and get learning together, and improve some stuff along the way.

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Stacey Caillier Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation and the Deeper Learning Hub, where she supports research and networked improvement work within and beyond the HTH schools.

Ben Daley joined High Tech High to teach physics as a founding faculty member in fall 2000. He has been a school director, chief operating officer, and chief academic officer for High Tech High and is now the president of the Graduate School of Education.