An evaluation of the first year of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Networks for School Improvement initiative highlights the need for school teams to develop data analysis skills and secure leadership buy-in.
As part of a five-year, $1.7 billion education initiative announced in 2017, NSI awarded twenty-one grants totaling $92 million in September to nonprofits, school districts, and partnerships in thirteen states in support of evidence-based interventions and continuous data-driven learning aimed at improving student achievement. The grants support efforts at nearly three hundred schools enrolling two hundred and fifty thousand students, 29 percent of whom are African-American, 43 percent Latinx, and 70 percent low-income. The report, Networks for School Improvement: Year One (40 pages, PDF), found that the job of analyzing data to identify the root causes of inequitable student outcomes has been challenging for school teams, which will likely need to revisit and refine their analyses; that schools need support in looking at multiple new data sources beyond traditional outcome and accountability measures to assess the effectiveness of their change efforts; and that they also need guidance in filtering the overwhelming amount of data in ways that can inform their strategies.
The report also found that many schools and networks are beginning to incorporate student and stakeholder voices into their continuous improvement processes. According to the report, intermediaries have found greater uptake and use of continuous improvement tools where the principal or another senior leader demonstrates strong buy-in and foundational knowledge and regularly engages in the work. In addition, intermediaries are taking various approaches to structuring opportunities for school teams to learn from one another — including weekly site visits, virtual one-on-one meetings, and monthly in-person sessions for principals and coaches — and to providing tools, research, and frameworks that can help schools select and develop ideas for change.
Later this year, the foundation plans to award more than a dozen additional NSI grants, publish a report from Columbia University's Center for Public Research and Leadership analyzing lessons learned from the first year of implementation by eight current NSI grantees, and announce the first set of design partners for summative evaluation activities to examine longer-term outcomes.
"We've learned that the best answers don't come from a one-size-fits-all approach but from empowering local school leaders and educators to identify solutions that best fit the needs of their community," the report's authors write. "By building their capacity to solve problems, and to learn and adapt good practice based on evidence and data, we can help those who know their students and settings best unlock innovations and solutions. When we connect school teams to each other, we believe schools can share what they're learning in ways that will help more students learn too."