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Building A Professional Network Of Rural Educators From Scratch

Our guest author today is Danette Parsley, Chief Program Officer at Education Northwest, where she leads initiatives like the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement Network. To learn more about this work, check out Designing Rural School Improvement Networks: Aspirations and Actualities and Generating Opportunity and Prosperity: The Promise of Rural Education Collaboratives.

Small rural schools draw from a deep well of assets to positively impact student experiences and outcomes. They tend to serve as central hubs within their communities, and their small size often facilitates close staff relationships, which in turn can enable moving innovative ideas into action. At the same time, rural schools face a number of challenges that differ from those of their urban and suburban counterparts.

First, it’s extremely difficult to draw high-quality teachers to geographically disconnected, rural communities—and, when they do come, it’s hard to get them to stay. Second, it’s a challenge to connect teachers across remote and rural communities so they can share instructional practices and professional development. One way to address the challenges facing rural schools, while leveraging their inherent assets, is to establish professional networks of teacher leaders aimed at providing support that helps their colleagues succeed and encourages them to stay.

When Education Northwest helped facilitate the formation of the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) Network in 2013, we had an evidence base to guide us but no actual blueprint for how to put together a rural educator network. Some models exist, but there still isn’t much information on how to create education networks from scratch, particularly those that bring together rural educators. In this post, we take stock of what we have learned in the three years since the network was formed, and share our key takeaways to help other groups that want to form education networks with similar goals.

The network was created to foster a sense of professional belonging among educators from rural and remote districts, as well as hone classroom practices and increase student engagement. It comprises teams of rural teacher leaders, principals, superintendents, and state education agency staff members from 22 small districts (averaging about 300 students each) in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

One premise of NW RISE is that teachers are the most important within-school factor that affects student learning and achievement. Another premise is that teachers working with teachers is key for transforming instructional practice and, ultimately, student outcomes. So we adopted the conceptual frame of professional capital, which Hargreaves and Fullan describe as a combination of social, decisional and human capital. Rural schools face difficulty with all three elements—especially when schools have only one teacher per grade level or content area and rare opportunities to share resources and best practices with colleagues in similar, or job-alike, roles. The network was designed to overcome this challenge.

Network Architecture

In 2013, we brought together partners from the state education agencies in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to develop a shared vision of the project. Together, they identified some common goals and principles for the work. Then, a smaller design team reviewed the literature on professional networks, looked at international examples, deliberated options, and created specific recommendations about the network’s architecture for the larger leadership group to approve.

Our design process was informed by evidence showing that the more educators interact with one another, the more likely they will work toward common goals, innovate, and develop shared responsibility for student success. Another guiding belief was that leaders from within should steer a network, as well as provide clarity, focus, and discipline.

Early on, network leaders decided to have teacher leaders and administrators work together in groups composed of colleagues in similar positions from other districts. These job-alike groups quickly became a core organizing feature for the network. Teachers collaborate during the network’s semiannual face-to-face meetings and then virtually throughout the year with job-alike colleagues from other districts. In these meetings, teachers plan, carry out, and jointly learn from classroom-focused projects designed to help increase student engagement by teaching college- and career-ready standards in a culturally and locally relevant way.

At the same time, building and district administrators, as well as state education agency representatives, work together with the focus of creating conditions to support teacher collaboration—and to develop and circulate professional capital—beyond the network.

With a goal to expand from 22 to 40 participating districts by the end of 2017, the network steering committee regularly revisits the network architecture to reflect on progress and make modifications based on our ongoing assessment of activities.

Lessons Learned

Invest time in design. Once we hatched the idea for a network and assembled a core group of folks committed to making it a reality, we were eager to get to the launch point. But, because our participating members came from a wide region with different priorities and contexts, it was crucial to spend substantial time and energy to create a shared vision and common goals. We also learned that design doesn’t end when the network activities begin. Rather, it’s important to design “just enough” to get the network started and then continually revise the design based on ongoing work and emergent learning.

Practical tips:

  • In the initial design phase, allow sufficient time for the team members to dream, deliberate and reach consensus on foundational issues (e.g., membership criteria);
  • Create and iterate over time a list of key design decisions tied to foundational components of the network (e.g., membership, leadership, network activities);
  • As the network matures and grows, continually revisit the shared vision and goals to help anchor both new and veteran members;
  • Balance deliberate design with the flexibility to evolve in real time.

Centralize coordination, decentralize leadership and action. It’s crucial for members to collaborate freely with minimal outside interference. Our role as network organizers is to provide essential scaffolding (such as facilitation and logistical support) to allow members to focus on the work of the network. We also bring in university researchers as partners who provide critical inquiry and positive reinforcement to help the network meet its goals and provide participants with access to evidence-based practices and outside examples, although never in a heavy-handed way. We steer lightly, helping empower the network to develop its own direction.

Practical tips:

  • Form a representative leadership group to steer and make critical decisions;
  • Use issue-specific work groups to move the leadership team’s work forward in a more manageable and efficient way;
  • Identify an entity to serve as the network backbone to provide essential supports and execute on the leadership group’s decisions;
  • Define roles and responsibilities for network stakeholder groups early on;
  • Provide ample opportunities for network members to lead.

Prioritize purpose before process. All formal network activities are designed to maximize collaboration time. In the early stages, however, some job-alike groups asked for a higher level of structured support to get going, so we started providing optional discussion and planning templates for each working session. We want to ensure members spend the bulk of their time and energy focused on what they want to accomplish—not on how to organize themselves. Our role is to provide just enough support to help groups get the ball rolling.  

Practical tips:

  • Provide facilitation support for collaborative groups as long as needed;
  • Include frequent opportunities for groups to share outcomes and learning from collaborative work with each other;
  • Promote shared commitment and responsibility; minimize compliance-oriented language and activities.

Use the Goldilocks approach to manage growth. We launched the network with a relatively small number of highly invested, motivated districts willing to do a “proof of concept” by translating the initial network design into reality. As we moved from proof of concept to expansion, the steering committee carefully deliberated about how much and how fast to grow the network. If we remained too small for too long, we risked limiting the stimulation and diversity needed to fuel social capital and meet member needs. And if we grew too fast we risked the loss of network identity and the special “small community” feel that makes participating so appealing. Ultimately we decided that growing over the course of two years to about 10 districts per state (40 total) seemed about right.

Practical tips:

  • Start with a relatively small group of members committed to and energized by the vision who are willing to continue design work while the project is in motion;
  • Bring in members who have both commonalities and enough variation to bring in new ideas and stretch one another;
  • Tap network members to help with recruitment;
  • Provide new members with an orientation and arm them with any information they need to jump right in and contribute (e.g., website usernames and logins, introduction to job-alike facilitator, etc.).

Build in evidence gathering early on. Begin evaluating activities and outcomes as early as possible—but not before members are ready. Network leaders might hesitate to collect data from the get-go because they fear participants might feel too vulnerable, or they worry about detracting from the network’s core purpose. It won’t take long, however, for members and sponsors to feel the need for data and evidence to get smarter and better at running the network, monitor progress toward meeting stated goals, and gauge levels of return on resource investments.

Practical tips:

  • Articulate and use a network theory of action to help guide decisions about the highest priority implementation and outcome evidence to gather;
  • Reduce data burden by generating and drawing primarily from a list of data sources that require little or no effort to acquire;
  • In addition to standard data collection, track the network’s story over time; have network leaders and veteran members use the story to help new members integrate and develop a sense of belonging.

As we grow the number of districts in NW RISE over the next two years and look closely at the data and evidence we’ve been tracking since the network’s formation to tell us more about how we are doing, we are also eager to share what know and what we are learning with others who are traveling down the same path. If you’d like to share your questions or thoughts, please contact me at Danette.Parsley@educationnorthwest.org.

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