**This post also appears on International Education News**
Last week, IEN described a number of the sessions from this year’s conference of the American Educational Research Association conference. This week’s post draws from a session focusing on educational networks and accountability organized by Melanie Ehren and chaired by Cindy Poortman and Mei Kuin Lai . Participants included Melanie Ehren and David Godfrey; Martin Brown, Joe O’Hara, and Gerry McNamara; Alvaro González, Carmen Montecinos, Luis Ahumada, and Mauricio Pino; and Christopher Chapman; with comments by James Spillane and Thomas Hatch. This post draws from the comments Hatch made during the session. Previous posts on IEN from Melanie Ehren and Chris Chapman address related issues of networks, improvement and accountability.
School networks have taken off around the world:
- In Northern Ireland, 30 Area Learning Communities bring together voluntary coalitions of “post-primary” schools to develop plans and share practices to address a special area of need
- In Chile, nearly 500 School Improvement Networks, with an average of 10 schools each, stretch across all 15 regions of the country. Within each network, school administrators such as principals and curriculum coordinators meet on a monthly basis to discuss best practices and ways to make improvements
- In England, the government has incentivized a variety of school-to-school partnerships including “Multi-Academy Trusts.” Similar to charter school networks in the US, Multi-Academy Trusts are chains of publicly funded independent schools (called “academies”), run by a Board of Directors (called a “Trust”) to increase efficiency and improve performance. As Melanie Ehren and David Godfrey report, “in 2012, there were 312 academy chains in England, with 39% of the academiesbeing part of a chain. By 2015, nearly two thirds of the 4725 academies were in MATs and 517 MATs had 2 to 5 academies, 98 with 6–15 and 19 MATs with 16 or more or schools (some up to as many as 66 schools), located in different regions across England.”
- In Scotland, six ‘Regional Improvement Collaboratives’ take responsibility for leading system improvement across Scotland by joining schools and other organizations and public institutions in different regions. The Collaboratives intend to provide a coherent focus and related support for educational improvement efforts.
- In New York City, the Learning Partners Program brings together almost 200 schools in small groups of three and four to participate in biweekly meetings, monthly intervisitations, and related educational development activities.
Fueled by a belief in the power of social networks and social capital, these educational networks reflect the idea that when schools work together with one another or with other agencies, they can share their expertise and support one another’s development, improvement and success more effectively than they can working on their own. As Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Michael Fullan report, as yet, there is little evidence that connects school network activities directly to improved student outcomes; but the efforts to study and learn from both the successes and challenges of these networking efforts so far, raise a number of questions that can be addressed to help harness the power of networks for schools.
What does networking really involve?
The benefits of networking depend crucially on exactly who is interacting with whom around what and to what end. In Chile, the networks may depend on head teachers and administrators talking together across schools, but in Scotland they may rely on teachers joining together in inquiry groups. In either case, those individuals and groups will then need to find ways to share whatever they learned with their colleagues “back home.”
What kinds of supports will make networks effective?
Many initiatives in education are based on the hope that someone, somewhere, already has the resources and expertise needed to improve schools. As A Nation at Risk in the US stated 35 years ago: “It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.” Some networking strategies reflect that hope by suggesting that putting people in the same room together will lead to productive learning. In contrast, as James Spillane, David Cohen, and Donald Peurach argue, concerted efforts and investments need to be made to build the infrastructure that can support educational improvement. Effective networking, for example, relies on meeting structures and routines, expert facilitators, protocols, and the development of a host of other resources and capabilities.
To what extent do networks reduce or increase work and complexity?
Ideally, networking should reduce work and create efficiencies by encouraging individuals and groups to share ideas and distribute responsibilities. Nonetheless, interacting and collaborating is hard work. It takes dedicated time and the development of the infrastructure to support networking takes funding, and resources away from other valued pursuits. As a result, networking strategies done poorly can end up undermining rather than building collective capacity. As a consequence, successful networking depends on reorganizing and rethinking the use of time and resources – deciding what not to do as well as what to do – not just adding more meetings onto already overloaded schedules.
To what extent do networks need to grow informally and “organically” and to what extent can they be induced?
Some of the excitement around social networks grows out of a belief that the informal and voluntary connections and interactions among people provide a particularly powerful and motivating opportunity for learning. However, many school networks depend at least to some extent on education authorities providing encouragement or establishing requirements for schools to work together. Can networking be both voluntary and required or will required networking result in the kind of “contrived collegiality” that can limit the development of collaboration?
How can the collaborative goals and practices of networks mesh with the goals and practices of individually-oriented education systems?
As the participants in the AERA symposium on Networks and Accountability pointed out, the informal, collaborative, non-hierarchical basis of many networks runs counter to the pervasive focus in many education systems on standardized assessments, individual accountability and bureaucratic control. That leaves those invested in networks to figure out how to carve out spaces and put in place supports that can foster collaboration and promote collective goals and purposes while buffering those efforts from most existing accountability initiatives.
All of these questions point to the considerable work that needs to be done to make educational networks as powerful as many hope they will be. Though the work seems daunting, it also opens up possibilities for outcomes – engagement, trust, learning, and satisfaction— rarely obtained more easily or effectively than other approaches.
— Thomas Hatch