By Chris Harrison, Lora Cohen-Vogel, Brad Fatout, and Dan Traeger
In our last blog post, we introduced the work of the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools (NCSU), a five-year partnership between researchers, developers, and educators in two urban school districts. The Center’s model of improvement relies on three core principles:
Developing innovations that reflect the core elements of programs or practices that have been shown to be effective in our partner districts;
Using rapid-cycle testing to revise innovation prototypes in ways that adapt it to different school contexts; and
Building authentic partnerships that take advantage of and build local ownership and expertise so that changes in practice can be brought to scale with depth and sustainability.
In this post, we’ll share more about the third of these principles: building authentic partnerships. With our colleagues from Broward County Public Schools (BCPS), we worked to design, develop, and scale an innovation that emphasizes personalized learning for students. Along the way, we learned key lessons about building, maintaining, and leveraging the power of our partnership.
Identifying, Building, and Managing Capacity
One key lesson is that having a clear understanding of the capacities held by each member of the partnership is essential. This includes knowing what skills, knowledge and resources will be required at each stage of the work, which partners hold them, and how they can be successfully brought to bear. It also requires openness among the partners about what they are willing and able to do and frequent communication about the shifting and emerging requirements of the work over time.
Additionally, plans must be laid in advance for how the partnership will deal with any capacity limitation it may confront. What happens if the partnership lacks the skills, knowledge, or resources required for an aspect of its joint work – for example, writing a curriculum? Is it better to solve the problem from within, investing the time and resources needed to build a tailor-made solution in-house, or to look outward for new partners that might have a workable solution in-hand?
Building new capacity among the partners is one option for solving this kind of problem. While capacity building can lay a foundation for longer-term sustainability, it may come at the cost of forward momentum and scarce time or resources. Acquiring needed capacity from external experts is another possibility. Doing so, however, comes with its own set of challenges for the ongoing process, including the difficulty of folding additional parties into the established work of the partnership, the cost of purchasing materials or services, and the possibility that new partners may not possess a deep knowledge of the district context. As such, partners have to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of building capacity or acquiring capacity, potentially striking a balance between the two over time.
Ensuring All Partners have a Voice
Our work in Broward County has also emphasized that engaging in the complex work of partnership benefits from ensuring that all partners are represented and have voice in decision-making. A key facet of the Center’s model is the inclusion of a wide range of practitioners, from teachers to district administrators, working alongside researchers and developers. By working to build equitable relationships between all partners, the Center has enjoyed substantial success in leveraging practitioners’ knowledge and building their will and support for change over time.
Integrating this myriad of voices requires careful effort to encourage participation and communication between all partners, without overburdening them. Key is finding the time to bring the partners together to engage in collaborative work and, occasionally, to simply socialize and build collegial relationships. This isn’t easy, and it often requires substantial resources and flexibility from all involved. Understanding the different constraints that teachers, school leaders, researchers and developers work under is vitally important, as is finding novel ways to build bridges between them. For example, we found ourselves making use of online meeting spaces and work platforms to provide flexible alternatives to in-person collaboration.
Striking a Balance between Top-Down and Bottom-Up Participation
Finally, to ensure that all members of the partnership were able to exercise their voices, we thought carefully about how to balance bottom-up and top-down participation. Achieving this balance demanded significant culture building among the group and an emphasis on open communication and collaborative norms. From the start, our teams endeavored to make our meetings a “safe place” where traditional lines of authority could be temporarily set aside, ensuring that teachers felt as valued as principals, and practitioners felt as heard as researchers. Creating this culture was vital for building buy-in for our collaborative work, the emerging innovation, and the research study surrounding it.
In addition, the partnership had to carefully consider when and how to best leverage partners at different positions in the district hierarchy. For example, we thought critically about when the time was “right” to more directly involve senior district leaders in decision-making. Early in the work, for example, we emphasized the “bottom-up” nature of our process, drawing upon the wisdom, experience, and support of school-level practitioners as we focused on the initial development and implementation of the innovation. As the work moved toward scale, however, being able to leverage the “top-down” support of higher-level district leadership was critical for legitimizing the growing innovation, and maintaining the momentum required for it to spread.
An important part of our ability to manage the balance between “bottom-up” and “top-down” participation in our work was the assistance of our district coordinator. Early in the project, we partnered with a former school leader in each of our districts. In Broward, our coordinator was a well-respected former principal with substantial background in the district context. Because of his firm grounding in the district, he could work fluidly with stakeholders at all levels, build bridges between them, and advise the NCSU on the right moments to engage senior leadership. Having a “guide” in the district was a tremendous help as we navigated the complex work of building an authentic partnership.
Learning each of these lessons has been an important part of our efforts to build a sustainable and authentic partnership between researchers, practitioners, and developers in BCPS. That partnership, in turn, has served as a foundation for our work in the district, generating the trust necessary for moving toward meaningful improvement through innovation as well as for learning from the process through high-quality research.
In addition to Chris, the following members of the NCSU team contributed to this post:
Lora Cohen-Vogel, PhD is the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Policy and Education Reform in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes and teaches about educational politics, teacher quality, school staffing policies, and taking effective practices to scale.
Brad Fatout is a veteran educator and school leader in Broward County, Florida. Mr. Fatout currently serves as an Assistant Principal at Charles W. Flanagan High School and served as a high school teacher and coach before that. As a member of the NCSU’s design team, Mr. Fatout has contributed his invaluable experience as an educator, shaping the design of the BCPS innovation and leading the implementation and adaptation process in his school with a team of his colleagues.
Dan Traeger is a long-serving leader in Broward County, with over 13 years of experience as a principal of both middle and high schools and has been recognized as a principal of the year by multiple organizations. In addition, Mr. Traeger has played a key role in the implementation of district initiatives, like the BCPS Secondary School Redesign. As part of the NCSU’s process, Mr. Traeger served as a member of the design team, advisor to NCSU leadership, and indispensible coordinator between the NCSU and BCPS.