In this third and final article exploring the key themes of The Education Hub’s recently released report, The Quest for Scale, the potential for CoLs to drive system-wide improvement and innovation is assessed.
CoLs were designed as a mechanism for raising achievement through inter-school collaboration, capacity building, and the sharing of expertise. As such, they appear, at least on the surface, to share much with a networked approach to innovation and improvement. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that in many instances they are failing to effect the level of innovation or improvement that was anticipated. Indeed, recent reports (here, here, here) on the establishment of CoLs have identified the deep issues affecting their ability to produce desired outcomes.
Our analysis of CoLs also suggests that in their current form, they are not set up to achieve iterative improvement at scale. While the underlying theory informing CoLs is grounded in the international literature, there has been too little focus on the implementation of this theory in practice, and in particular the supports and structures that need to be in place to make the initiative a success.
In their current design, there is not enough attention paid to building the capacity of CoL members to engage in the iterative development and evaluation work that underpins CoL activity. Indeed, in a 2017 survey administered by NZCER, only 34% of teachers considered that their CoL participation was supporting their capacity for inquiry or strengthening their practice as a teacher, with principals rating slightly higher at 48%. As a result, the rigour with which the iterative learning or inquiry cycles that form a central component of CoLs’ improvement work are implemented remains highly variable.
Learning cycles are further impacted by the absence in most CoLs of effectively designed data management processes and systems. Most CoLs lack the infrastructure to support the routine collection, analysis, interpretation and application of data and evidence to diagnose issues and to inform ongoing decision-making. CoLs require both short-term measures that are embedded in day-to-day practice and are able to regularly inform iterative progress as well as long-term measures of success that enable them to understand progress towards high level outcomes.
A particular strength of the networked improvement approach is the power of purposeful and intentionally formed networks to facilitate collaboration and knowledge construction, and to enable the diffusion of ideas. While the Ministry of Education has established certain frameworks around CoL membership, the participation of schools and early childhood education centres appears to be based primarily on geographic proximity rather than a shared focus on a particular problem of practice. Furthermore, networks benefit from the bringing together of diverse members – educators, researchers, designers – as equal partners. However, in CoLs, educators are the primary participants, with expert partners positioned as external advisors rather than as integral, equal and long-term members of the collaborative partnership.
Highly functioning networks also facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing among members. To facilitate this, the Ministry of Education created a series of new roles in each CoL: the lead principal; the cross-school leads; and the within school leads. The findings from a 2017 survey demonstrate that while 78% of teachers in cross-school roles considered they had positive collaboration opportunities with other teachers, this dropped to only 34% of teachers in non-cross school leadership roles. So, while there appears to be some degree of collaboration occurring within individual CoLs, widespread knowledge sharing is limited. This may in part reflect the absence of support, resourcing or technology to facilitate effective communication among CoL members. The initiative also suffers from the limited dissemination of knowledge and learning outside of individual CoLs. Currently, there are few mechanisms in place to support regular inter-CoL interaction, collaboration or knowledge sharing, which significantly limits the spread of new knowledge across the whole system.
While the formation of CoLs is an important step in the process of scaling educational improvement in New Zealand, their current design and implementation means that they are not set up to achieve improvement at scale. However, the networked improvement approach, which underpins the design of CoLs, does offer substantial opportunities. CoLs have the potential to drive an education system in New Zealand that empowers educators to work in collaboration with each other, and with researchers, designers, and other experts, to create the conditions, systems, and infrastructure needed to ensure our young people can thrive. For this to be realised, there will need to be much more attention paid to the supports and structures required to enable the effective operation of CoLs.