Is Your School Network Model “Tight” or “Loose”?

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.

road signs with word "Custom" and an arrow pointing to the left, and below it a sign reading "Standard" and pointing to the right, word standard is circled in redIn 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:

  • A clear model with demonstrated results, with codified guidelines on what must be true to deliver high-quality instruction and where there are opportunities for schools and teachers to continue to innovate
  • Shared resources, to ensure that functions are consistent across campuses, processes are managed and aligned, and staff is accountable
  • A directive leadership style, with network leadership comfortable establishing a vision and holding others directly accountable to it
  • Staff that is comfortable with a structured playbook, acknowledging that a greater degree of prescriptiveness on curriculum, instruction, and culture may come with less flexibility to be entrepreneurial

Networks that trend loose need:

  • A well-defined set of non-negotiables, so that leaders understand what is “theirs” to modify and what must be implemented with high fidelity
  • A structured approach to talent sourcing and development that introduces new teachers and leaders to the look and feel of the network, and then supports them in making decisions
  • Typically a leaner central office, with more decision-making authorities residing at the campus level
  • Staff that is comfortable innovating, with less of a guidebook on the how-to

The key is to be intentional and acknowledge the trade-offs, because an explicit naming of the network model in either a “tight” or “loose” system:

  • Helps to distribute ownership across leaders
  • Creates consistent expectations across campuses
  • Clarifies decision rights so that everyone knows who is responsible for what
  • Informs other critical decisions, such as organizational structure

The expectations point is so important: just imagine what would happen if a leader was hired with the belief that she had lots of space to build her team and rethink curriculum, and then was handed a detailed, step-by-step playbook and asked to report back on a long list of to-dos with little opportunity to weigh in! We’ve seen that mismatches in understanding are often the drivers of turnover.

We leave you with a parting thought from a seasoned school leader who recently went through a replication of his middle school model: “Start tighter, and then loosen things up once you build trust. Giving too much of a loose structure starting out is hard, because you may need to rein it back in if things don’t go well.”

To this end, in our upcoming #SGInstitute blog post, we’ll unpack the importance of systematically codifying your instructional and operational models — and the risks of not doing so.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Strategic Growth Institute and whether it’s a good fit for your organization, contact my colleague Rebecca Gifford Goldberg.