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What Continuous Improvement Networks Should Learn from District-Charter Compacts

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a new focus on supporting networks of middle and high schools. These Networks for School Improvement are intended to support continuous improvement—built on collecting data and testing solutions—in order to tackle some of public education’s most pressing challenges. As someone who studies education from a systems perspective, I am intrigued to see how these networks develop. Unlocking and sharing “best practices” is a common rallying cry in education. Can networks build the right type of supports that link school leaders and nurture the innovation at their schools that the Foundation and the field hope to see?

This shift in the Foundation’s focus comes as another significant initiative winds down. Beginning in 2010, the Foundation supported the creation of District-Charter Collaboration Compacts, nonbinding agreements between school districts and charter schools in 23 cities. During this time, with the Foundation’s support, my colleagues and I worked directly with a network of Compact city leaders to learn from them and connect them with each other. We’ve written much about the challenges and limited successes of these district-charter collaboration efforts, including in our January 2017 report.

Given the limited impact of Compact agreements, many people won’t be surprised that the Foundation is moving away from investing in the Compact concept. The good news is that practitioners and policymakers are still very much interested in the broader idea of district-charter cooperation. We regularly receive inquiries from reporters and education leaders from both sectors. The Foundation’s new network approach could build upon this interest and momentum.

What can networks learn from Compact cities? Our research found that these cities tended to see the most success in transactional exchanges of services or the establishment of common policies, where interests on all sides could be clearly defined and mutually beneficial decisions could be made. A successful effort in Chicago to create a Common School Performance Framework illustrated the benefit of projects built on clear goals and paths to completion. At their best, Compact cities established governance structures—standing committees, designated facilitators, or project managers—that helped craft and implement policy.

Pushing the needle on good instruction, especially in activities that involved teachers and principals directly, was much harder. We saw many school-to-school programs foster cross-sector understanding, but we didn’t see much progress in the way of changing or discovering innovative instructional practices. It turns out it is much harder to create the forum for solving problems together across different school cultures and contexts, perhaps because the work is so much more complex when the endpoint is unknown.

A state-sponsored collaboration initiative in Florida, inspired by the Compacts, further illustrates this challenge. The Jacksonville public school system and KIPP charter schools were due to receive a grant to collaborate on personalizing learning. Both were starting at square one. But the state ultimately ended the grant when it was clear the partners weren’t making much progress. Part of the problem seems to be that the district and KIPP didn’t find ways to formalize the connection between principals and teachers. It wasn’t enough for each partner to recognize a common problem and say they will compare notes as they solve it in their own ways. They needed to establish a process by which school leaders could align software platforms, definitions, and implementation timelines. They needed to create the space in which teachers could compare data and notes, form real relationships with each other, and periodically assess their progress. And they needed a thought-out plan to do these things from the get-go.

Many Compact cities had laudable, lofty goals to work together to solve educational problems. Networks that seek to substantially change teaching and learning within schools and classrooms will be pursuing equally worthwhile endeavors. But networks can’t rely solely on motivations. If they are to be successful, networks must think carefully about creating the systems that inspire and support change at schools. Who will they involve? When will they meet? How will they make decisions? Who will help guide them? When they run into obstacles, how will they make changes? The more details on these practical matters that networks can pin down, the better.

There is a genuine hunger to rethink school supports that are traditionally provided by top-down central offices. There is a hunger for schools—be they district or charter—to connect with each other, across sector boundaries or district or state lines. If networks use the Foundation’s investment to develop models for facilitation and problem solving across school sites, those models may be more replicable—and equally valuable for the field—than the new instructional models they implement in their classrooms.

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