These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


The Power of a Network

By Van Schoales

For better or worse, most of us learn best from our peers. We can consciously harness peer learning, but it often happens unconsciously. Peer learning is most powerful when it occurs in an environment that delineates a clear path to success, supports collaboration, and provides ongoing feedback. Intentional, focused peer learning networks work. Given this, you’d think school districts would do more to support the development of school-to-school, teacher-to-teacher, and principal-to-principal learning rather than the typical top-down professional development model that is far too common in districts across the country. Even some of Colorado’s best districts, like DPS, still seem to think it is best to put large groups of adults in a big room to learn how to teach kids to read from an expert.

The new Luminary Learning Network (LLN) is a promising way to support school achievement in DPS. It is the district’s first innovation zone, a network of four schools each with its own unique school design and student population. They joined the LLN because they wanted to operate with more autonomy from the district. Though Superintendent Tom Boasberg champions school autonomy, these schools and others advocate for major shifts in the dynamics of how districts and schools interact.

As DPS Board member Barbara O’Brien recently stated at a board work session,“the Luminary Learning Network exists because the central office can be a wet blanket for talent in DPS.” With the LLN, schools will have more power to pick and choose which district supports they want to pay to access. These four schools, with help from the Gates Family Foundation and Empower Schools, created LLN which operates under an independent 501(c)3 with a board of directors that includes DPS board and other community members.  

Similar school networks have shown great promise in other parts of the country. Of these school networks that, the most successful have both a clear reason for gathering the specific schools into a network and strong school leaders. I first experienced this with the Coalition of Essential Schools nearly thirty years ago and, again, two decades ago with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound. Many other successful networks exist; a few that come to mind are Core Knowledge, Montessori, New Visions, and many of the networks established by the NYC department of Education. While many of the most effective networks have been built around a particular vision for schooling, others—like the turnaround network in Springfield, Massachusetts—form around a common set of goals with intensive, tailored support for schools.   

Network as Mini-School System or Small System of Schools?

The Luminary Network is particularly interesting because it is composed of a set of schools that use different models to serve different student populations. The unifying theme for these schools is their commitment to improving their practice which they believe requires increased flexibility and autonomy from district constraints. The network said that it will focus on taking schools from “good to great,” though a couple of the schools may need the LLN to support them in getting from struggling to good first.  Several of the schools are doing well while a few are far from where they need to be in terms of academic achievement.

One important feature of the LLN is that they operate under an independent nonprofit board similar to a charter school with a small central office in charge of back office operations that reports to schools. The LLN nonprofit board has the ability to negotiate with the district on behalf of schools and help direct resources for the network schools except that, in the LLN, the schools are driving these decisions.  

Shifting Power Dynamics

The LLN switches the power dynamic so that the school is customer/decider and the district is the service provider. While the LLN frees up more of the school’s resources, DPS remains the school authorizer as it is for all charter and innovation schools. DPS has the power to shut down or phase out a LLN school if the school underperforms. DPS’ adoption of the LLN allows the district to shift more toward an authorizing body and service provider rather than a traditional command-and-control school system that emanates from the Superintendent’s office with a focus on “one best system” which we know does not work if you want a diverse set of great schools.  

The LLN should be understood as another strategy for school improvement like charter schools, innovation schools, school restart, or innovation zones. These tools can be wielded effectively or ineffectively to improve schools and it is the job of the district to ensure that schools are in fact improving. It, however, should not be the district’s job to mandate the services or structures schools take so long as the schools provide students with a quality education.

If school leaders do not move the needle, the district still holds the the authorizing authority to intervene as they would for a charter in terms of phasing out or closing the school. DPS has one of the best authorizing processes and records for quality schools, so as long as the district applies the same methods to evaluating Luminary Network schools, I have confidence that these schools will perform well and improve over time. And if they do not, the district can step in. The Luminary structure allows DPS to focus on what should be the district’s ultimate purpose which is making sure that all students have access to quality schools.   

Luminary Network as a District or School Improvement Strategy, or Both?

I think the real power of having a group of autonomous schools overseen by an independent non-profit is what it will do to break up the district monopoly on school management. School districts are critical for a variety of oversight and equity reasons, as we are now seeing in New Orleans, yet most districts seem unable to focus on what is most important. This sort of network allows the district to focus more on core competencies and determine the fairest way to cost out services to schools (e.g. mental health providers, food services, facility maintenance, transportation etc). It will enable a shift from the district trying to directly manage schools centrally to allowing schools to govern themselves within the context of flexible support and strong oversight.

As we have witnessed in districts like Springfield, Massachusetts, Edmonton, Alberta, and to a lesser degree in New York City, districts that are able to move decision making to the school (with strong school leadership) and price district services tend to become more focused on providing quality district services. These districts also tend to get higher performing schools.

One other benefit is that educational ecosystem of support for schools tends to grow. Decentralizing decision making to schools allows districts to become more focused on strategic supports for schools rather than trying to support all schools equally in all areas. In my experience, the three most common reasons superintendents give for not supporting greater school autonomy are:

  1. leaders lack the capacity to make good decisions, to make decisions;
  2. the district is making it easier for leaders to focus on instruction by not bothering them with operations; and
  3. it’s less expensive to make decisions at scale for the system than having 200 separate school level decisions on certain school district resources.  

Each has its merits for particular circumstances but if school leaders are competent and want to make decisions for themselves, the arguments seem to fall apart. When districts are responsible for supporting too many schools in too many ways, they cannot offer the depth of supports needed by their diverse schools which often leads to lower quality of services and a mismatch for what schools need.

The Luminary Learning Network is a natural outgrowth of the Colorado Innovation Schools Act (2008) and Colorado Charter Schools Act (1993). I believe that it reflects the legislative intent of the Innovation law in that it clarifies the relationship between schools and the district while preserving district oversight of schools in terms of performance. While the network currently represents just a small percentage of DPS students, it does have a representative cross section of the district’s demographics.  

I believe this may prove to be the most far reaching reform in district operations since DPS decided to use new schools (district-run and charter alike) as an improvement strategy. Unfortunately, this network, like early charters, seems to be seen as more of a distraction by some district leaders rather than another important strategy for improvement.

It was interesting for me and a group of us from Denver to recently meet with senior Springfield, Massachusetts district administrators. These administrators including Superintendent Warwick are fairly traditional and not fans of charters. They described how their zone forced them to be more efficient and focused. The Chief Financial Officer of Springfield, who had to go through the challenges of pricing all of the district supports for schools, said that even while the district may lose some funding because schools may decide to not to buy a particular service, this new process with defined district service prices and contracts allowed the district to be far more customer orientated and effective.  

Here’s hoping DPS steps back with an open mind and uses this structural innovation as a means to improve rather than just seeing it as an assault on what they think they should be done to schools. It is critical that the funding community, DPS and others closely observe Luminary and provide evaluation to understand how this new structure will impact the district and also schools in Luminary.   

Are Innovation School Leaders Free to Choose?

The district claims that it believes in its school leaders and that they should have the right to choose what is best in terms of staffing, schedules, programs and budget under the Innovation Schools Act. It is puzzling to hear from some district leaders that feel that there needs to be proof that the network can deliver better than the district before allowing a school to leave the district and join the network.

There is a distinction between districts’ roles as school authorizers and service-providers. In the context of a district with strong authorizing practices, like Denver, the quality of district supports should be determined by the schools. For a district to deny school the ability to choose to use different service-providers is not what is best. It’s a bit like Sprint saying to you that you have to demonstrate that AT&T is better before you can switch carriers. Competent school leaders should be able to choose their network.

There are a number of fairly effective innovation schools with great school leaders that are considering a move to Luminary or development of their own network. The big question will be whether they are free to choose. If the district and board is serious about school autonomy as they have claimed, will they let schools choose? We will see in the coming months.