by Ivy McKee, Senior Associate of Strategic Initiatives
Every day, we notice things about our work that could be improved. Yet, for many, the space to reflect on growth areas, celebrate successes, and discuss observations with teammates is infrequent and unstructured.
Research shows that participation in consistent and facilitated reflection sessions is a vital tool for organizational growth. Our work with the Networks for School Improvement (NSI) grantees from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s K-12 portfolio is one example of the benefits of this practice. The NSI grantees are intermediaries who support networks of schools and districts to implement data-driven continuous improvement (CI) strategies to improve outcomes for youth who are Black, Latino, and experiencing poverty. Catalyst:Ed has facilitated self-reflection sessions for NSIs every 18 months since 2019. These reflection sessions are grounded in the Framework for Improvement Teams (FIT), a practical, equity-centered, and action-oriented framework with 17 capacities and associated look-fors that can be used to seed conversations about growth, barriers, and next steps. The FIT was created by Catalyst:Ed through an iterative development process involving a diverse range of stakeholders, including over 60 researchers, practitioners, and technical assistance providers. Check out this briefing paper to learn more about our process.
Fifteen of the NSI grantees recently participated in their third round of reflections with Catalyst:Ed. They rated each capacity on a four-point scale, indicating their areas of strength and areas for development throughout the discussion. Capacities described as “pretty good” or “very good or great” are areas that grantees felt were areas of strength, and capacities rated as “we could probably get better” or “we really need to work on this” are areas for development. The top three capacities in each category are highlighted below.
Areas of strength & growth: What the data shows
After going through the reflective exercise, NSI grantees identified Network Member Development (100%), Understanding the System (100%), and Network Management (93%) as their areas of strength. Family and Community Engagement (100%), Student Agency (67%), and Knowledge Management (60%) emerged as the most commonly identified areas of growth.
Reflections on the data
During the facilitated reflections, the grantees shared stories behind their ratings. Here is some of what we heard:
- As grantees have matured, they have developed more rigorous Student Agency goals, with many now striving for authentic co-ownership of CI efforts with students. While grantees agreed that involving students, families, and community members is key to sustaining equity-centered CI efforts, they often found it challenging to identify the best ways to do this given their roles as intermediaries. Some NSIs shared what they have done so far:
- Denver Public School’s Empathy and Action video captures student perspectives from their efforts.
- Institute for Learning’s curriculum co-development pilot demonstrated how network members can be empowered to actualize co-development strategies. NSI also noted that they anticipate the same strategies.
- Virtual and hybrid environments forced by the pandemic have helped some grantees expand their impact but created barriers to engagement for others.
- Some saw increased engagement and heightened collaboration due to virtual Network Management strategies.
- Others could not translate their original plans to a virtual setting and experienced decreased engagement due to technological barriers and Zoom fatigue.
- In other capacity areas, such as Knowledge Management, the shift to virtual learning and support paused progress and required grantees to prioritize the immediate needs of their members.
- Several grantees reported significant growth in the capacity groups related to networked improvement, particularly in their ability to help network members Understand the System and their facilitation of Network Member Development activities. As a result, they are now customizing their approach to their local contexts instead of “going by the book.”
- With more time leading networks, building relationships with similar organizations, and accessing an array of technical assistance and professional development supports, we observed that grantees are more thoughtful and mature about their capacity reflections overall, and have deepened their understanding of what capacities are truly necessary for their success.
Prioritizing facilitated reflection for leadership teams supports growth and can strengthen efforts towards systemic change. High-quality reflection structures can help leaders to celebrate specific and effective strategies, share their lessons in real-time, and foster a collaborative and honest space for evaluating next steps in their work.
“You can always learn from everyone, but when you actually get better is when you take what you learn, try it until it works, and do it again and again until it works. We have learned from ourselves, from our mistakes, and from others.” -NSI member, April 2022 Reflection
If you are interested in kicking off the upcoming school year with a reflection, check out the Learning Lab’s Build Your Blueprint tool The blueprint allows anyone interested in improvement to reflect on their capacity and receive a customized report with key questions and resources. If you already know where you want to build capacity towards your goals for the 22-23 SY, get started by completing a scoping form, and we’ll follow up to schedule a chat.