Maureen Kelleher at the Center For American Progress has written an interesting piece describing how several urban school districts have experimented with different school networks. The preliminary findings suggest that other urban school districts should be willing to let their schools create networks of common interests to help those schools that need it most.
School districts across the country are shifting away from their traditional management paradigm-a central office that directs its schools through uniform mandates and policies-toward a new vision where district leaders support autonomous schools while holding them accountable for student performance. School-district leaders recognize that greater school autonomy requires rethinking their models of management and support. During a pilot program in New York City, an initial cohort of 26 schools organized itself into four networks of schools that worked together to solve common problems. Today, New York City’s public schools are affiliated in networks based on a common interest: a similar type of school; a common instructional approach; or a similar target population.
This report describes the current state of school networks in New York City and outlines the successes and challenges the city has faced in implementing school networks. It also explores how networks have been implemented in other cities-Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; and Denver, Colorado-to show how the school-network concept has been adapted to a variety of local contexts.
Here are some key preliminary findings:
- Networks can deliver district supports more effectively than traditional central-office departments. Organizing district support by cross-functional teams responsive to a small group of schools builds greater trust between school leaders and their district and helps district-level staff better understand the needs of the schools they serve. Network teams can serve as a single point of contact between principals and district leaders, which gives principals more time to focus on teachers and instruction.
- Networks can open the door to collaborative problem solving among groups of schools, leading to improved student outcomes. New York City educational leaders report that a handful of high-performing school networks used cross-school collaboration to make significant strides in school improvement during the 2011-12 school year. However, New York City’s networks have had varying degrees of success fostering such collaboration across their schools. In Chicago, an externally managed, voluntary network of high schools has improved graduation and college entrance rates for students. Other cities have made less effort to use school networks as a tool for cross-school collaboration.
- Outsourcing can enhance networks, but locale is key. In cities such as New York, where robust educational nonprofit sectors exist, external partners can lead networks of schools in instructional improvement. However, New York City’s experience with outside networks indicates that external partners still need district liaisons to solve problems with operations. In cities with a weaker base of educational nonprofits, district staff must continue to lead both operational troubleshooting and instructional improvement.
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