Parents and educators generally agree on what we want schools to be: places where students become problem solvers, capable of self-directed learning and able to demonstrate strong communication and collaboration skills. We want students to feel safe in their schools and to develop meaningful human connections.
There is, however, a palpable tension in K-12 education: the desire for silver bullet fixes – rapid guaranteed transformation – going up against the realities of the time and difficulty to start and sustain systemic innovation. Why take on the hard work of changing schools? So that schools become really good at supporting individual students, places where students connect with their peers and their community and graduate from high school prepared to pursue paths of their own choosing. We want this for all students in all communities. Traditional ways of teaching and measuring student progress won’t produce these re-imagined student outcomes.
If we want to realize these outcomes for all students, we think we have to go beyond new instructional methods to attend to the opportunity gaps present in the quality of education offered. Furthermore, we think our best shot at dealing with closing the opportunity gap, at scale, is with school networks. Networks can serve as innovation and improvement ‘connective tissue’ so that no classroom, school, or district feels the responsibility to solve this complex and complicated problem by themselves.
Tom Vander Ark and I teamed up to write a new book, “Better Together,” to give voice to the exciting work taking place in school networks around the country. Better Together: How to Leverage School Networks for Smarter Personalized and Project Based Learning provides smart strategies for working together in school networks to achieve the promise of personalized learning for all students. Innovating schools as a “do it yourself” effort is hard to get right, challenging to sustain, and difficult to spread organically grown solutions across a district where they originate. “Better Together” introduces teachers, principals and district leaders who have re-imagined hundreds of public district and charter schools with the support of networks.
School networks—and New Tech Network specifically—are still early in the work to achieve true network effect. As we approach our twenty-year milestone as a national school network, we want to celebrate and urge our network to aspire higher. Our voluntary network of more than 200 schools is noteworthy on many levels (higher graduation rates, higher college persistence rates, demonstrated student growth in critical thinking, across rural, urban and suburban locales; and the vast majority of schools opt to stay in the network over time). However, this is a drop in the bucket when there are 70,000 students in New Tech Network schools and there are 50 million students in elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.
One of New Tech Network’s foundational beliefs is that schools get better by being part of a community. We have just scratched the surface in the potential impact of a vibrant evolving network. With this new book, we hope to give voice to the exciting work in New Tech Network schools around the country. And, while this is hard-earned attention, we believe that now is the time to challenge ourselves, collectively, to define the potential “power of us”.
Last summer at the New Tech Annual Conference, we asked members of our network: “What could we become? What could we accomplish by working together in deeper ways?” To that end, we will propose a new and larger purpose for our network. We want to shift from what social network parlance calls an “ego-centered network”, where the New Tech school model is the ego, to become a “knowledge ecosystem network” where our shared purpose, our reason to engage in network weaving, centers itself around closing the opportunity gap. This, we suggest, becomes our North Star, our collectively owned mission statement, the overarching reason for our schools to give to, and get from, the network.
Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” We think we have come together (our beginning), we have made great progress (staying together) and that now is the beginning of our true calling as a network. To stand for a goal that is almost certainly unachievable one school at a time. After all, putting the “power of us” into action for all kids speaks to the best in who we are as humans: people who care and act for a higher purpose.
Educators: What do you think? Does this excite you? What are your ideas to activate our network aligned to this North Star?