This is the fourth blog post in our #SGInstitute series, led by our Strategic Advising practice on lessons learned from advising schools, networks, and districts on growth and expansion.
One of my favorite conversations to have with growing school networks is about the role that the central office should play. How “tight” or “loose” will the relationship be between the network office and the campuses? “Tight” systems, processes, structures, and practices are centralized and/or standardized, meaning decisions about instruction, culture, and operations are made at the network level, with varying degrees of input from schools. “Loose” ones are decentralized and/or contextualized, meaning individual campuses can make their own decisions, often leading to school environments that look and feel completely distinct.
In a tight network, you’d expect to walk into two fourth-grade classrooms on two different campuses and see a lot of commonalities: set up of physical space, instructional delivery, cultural norms, and pace of lessons. In a loose network, you’d experience more variation. Perhaps shared values and the network focus, like STEM, are explicit, but one school might elevate biomedical engineering and another robotics. The personalities of the adults in the building – both the school leaders and the teachers – shine through in how instruction is delivered: for example, how students show appreciation for each other, or how work stations are set up in the classroom.
It’s important to note that there is no judgment implicit in being tight or loose! We have seen exceptional networks at both ends of the spectrum. One high-performing network (and a Broad Prize winner) designed itself to be tight for two primary reasons. First, due to the huge geographic area its schools covered, there were fewer opportunities for in-person collaboration. Second, because of the network’s rapid expansion and teacher demographics, with high numbers of new teachers and school leaders, more structure and scaffolding was put in place so as not to recreate the wheel on content each time. The network office focused on developing high-quality curriculum and resources for teachers and school leaders to use and implement with fidelity, and it had a large and strong team creating content and trainings.
On the flip side, another Broad Prize winner opted to give school leaders room to innovate, and therefore put a big premium on recruiting and onboarding top-notch talent. Leaders had access to shared resources such as technology, data management, and professional development from the network, but had ultimate control over their instructional models, so long as they produced results. Campuses also had more budgeting autonomies, with considerable discretion around managing on-site resources and incentives for local program development.
Many network leaders default to wanting tighter control, in the name of consistency and replicating a model that has seen success. While we’ve seen this play out well, there are a few notes of caution. As the tightness of control increases, networks typically need: Continue reading