The National Imperative to Build and Sustain Great School Networks



The National Imperative to Build and
Sustain Great School Networks

National School Choice Week came and went last month without much fanfare. But why is that? The President of the United States has called for $250 million in private school scholarships for low-income children, publicly spoken to the importance of career and technical education, and has plans to invest up to $20 billion in federal funding that could radically expand choice and competition in K-12 education in America. If ever there were a time to get excited about the potential that really broad and diverse school choice offers families in America—now is the time.

But there is at least one reason why school choice success stories are not at the forefront of our national conversation. Catholic schools, faith-based schools—indeed most schools of choice—are not organized into school networks that can provide them the kind of public relations, government affairs, or public advocacy needed to generate the news coverage that their stories deserve. School networks on the other hand, (especially the very best of them like Great Hearts, Democracy Prep, National Heritage Academies, and KIPP) not only generate for their schools cost-saving and quality-enhancing economies of scale, but they free up leadership to focus on larger strategic issues (like public advocacy) which in turn generate new resources to improve teaching and learning at the local school level.

Among the higher performing school networks, Indianapolis has The Oaks, Milwaukee has HOPE, and the Philadelphia Archdiocese has Faith in the Future and the Independence Mission Schools, but there are too few of these kinds of school networks being built today. If schools of choice—other than the very best charter schools—are going to compete meaningfully for marketshare in the future, and not be marginalized by district schools that otherwise monopolize the K-12 marketplace, they need to be governed, operated, managed, and led much differently than they are today.

 If schools of choice are going to compete meaningfully for marketshare in the future, they need to be governed, operated, managed, and led much differently than they are today.

In fact, running a great school network has become one of the most important leadership positions in America as our research demonstrates it is the surest means to strengthening and growing quality schools at scale. No single curriculum or teaching methodology is the secret to success. Rather, what excellent school networks have in common is excellent leadership, the great school cultures they create, and a commitment to continuous improvement across the enterprise.

Unfortunately, great schools, like those mentioned above, are all too rare for far too many communities. High school graduation rates, college completion rates, and workforce readiness measures increasingly push the United States into the lowest rankings among the developed world. As a result, this imperative to build and sustain great school networks has become all the more essential.

The good news is that school network leadership can be learned from peers, great teaching teams can be built from within your schools as currently conceived, and whole school performance can be radically improved through an intentional focus on creating a systemic culture of continuous improvement across a network of schools.

Of the thousands of schools we have studied at Carter Research, and the hundreds more we have worked with to improve their performance, many of them created effective school networks within four to five years. Some were new schools that started from scratch, but many more were just ordinary schools that became extraordinary once the right leadership took over—and once they took a network approach to leading and managing their schools. The key for all of them was no longer to behave like individual islands in a disconnected archipelago, but rather to work together as one learning ecosystem within a single coordinated school network.

But there is something else here: schooling is a business. Schools of choice need to be managed like a business or they will go out of business, as is happening today to so many schools, most especially private schools and religious schools that are overly dependent on philanthropy or which have not yet figured out how to pull more public funding into their revenue model.

Schooling is a business. Schools need to be managed like a business. Otherwise, they will go out of business.

Schooling is also a people-intensive business and all people are strengthened when they know they have other people to lean on and learn from and that they are not alone in their work. But what is most important about the strength that comes from building and maintaining a school network is the culture of accountability that is established when these same individuals, who previously were laboring alone on their educational island, willingly hold themselves to a higher standard of performance—simply by submitting their work to review by a third party—whether down the street, on the other side of the city, or across the country.

Look at the benefits of networking your school from two perspectives: from the perch of the school leader and through the eyes of a classroom teacher.

Great leaders in every industry understand and value the power of superior strategy: it is often strategic vision that creates the competitive advantage of marketplace winners. However, survey research conclusively demonstrates that school leaders are so caught up in the day-to-day operational details of their organizations that they do not have the time, external perspective, or dedicated resources required to develop and maintain a winning strategy for their school. This can all be changed by networking your schools. By holding yourself accountable to the successful models and proven practices of industry leaders, you can greatly accelerate the improvement efforts of your schools and give your fellow school leaders the strategic vision, improvement methodology, and implementation support tools they need to successfully compete in their markets. Networking brings the leadership out of school leaders.

The same is true for classroom teachers, but on a much larger scale. Leading school management organizations have already demonstrated the tremendous instructional acceleration for students that can be attained when dedicated teachers work together with a relentless focus on student achievement. By networking your schools, classroom teachers learn to harness all manner of best practices at scale and derive new network effects to improve all aspects of the teaching and learning environment.

If every there were a time to discover how great your schools can be by networking them—and by working with those who have already shown the path ahead—now is the time.