There is quite a bit of buzz these days about the concept of forming educator collaboratives, which is great news. Much is being written on the benefits of establishing educator networks designed to serve a specific purpose. For example, in The Mindful Teacher, Elizabeth MacDonald and Dennis Shirley show that teachers engaged in purposeful collaborative learning[external link] experiences gain the opportunity to improve their classroom practice as well as develop as leaders.
Yet, most of researchers’ focus has been on collaboratives in urban environments. So far, few studies have looked at the experiences and results from collaboratives in rural contexts. (One notable exception is our colleague Daniel Muijs’ piece on collaboration and networking among rural schools that appeared in thePeabody Journal of Education that we edited last year[external link].)
Educators in remote, rural schools often have limited access to the same professional development opportunities that their urban and suburban counterparts receive, and they consistently find themselves having to do more with less. Because of that, finding innovative ways to network and collaborate with other educators experiencing similar circumstances becomes a necessity.
We recently worked with Battelle for Kids on their new white paper[external link], Generating Opportunity and Prosperity: The Promise of Rural Educational Collaboratives. This report describes the current landscape of rural collaboratives and documents case studies from successful collaboratives across the United States. One collaborative featured in the white paper is our own Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) Network that brings together educators from 20 rural districts in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to focus on increasing student engagement. (You can learn more about NW RISE from our new video[external link] or theproject’s webpage.)
Through our experience creating and facilitating NW RISE since 2013, here are three takeaways for districts looking to form or join collaboratives:
Start Out With Evidence in Mind
One of the weakest aspects of collaboratives is producing evidence to show effectiveness. Often, networks are formed with passion and purpose at the forefront and with evaluation and evidence gathering as an afterthought. Not only can systematically gathering evidence help networks identify successes and guide course corrections, it can also help justify costs. (Networks can be expensive when it comes to funding travel for face-to-face meetings and bringing in professional development providers.) With three years’ experience supporting NW RISE under our belt, we are now reaching the stage where data collection has emerged as a top priority for members; a volunteer working group is tackling this head-on by developing and implementing an evidence plan.
Design With Intention
While successful collaboratives are organic and shaped by the participants, they also require intentional design. As described in the Battelle for Kids white paper, structuring a new network around research-based practices is ideal. It’s not always feasible, however, to implement a model with fidelity due to factors such as context, cost, and time. Keeping in mind a scarcity of available literature on the design and start-up phases of rural collaboratives and the need to create a model to match the context of our members, NW RISE didn’t base its structure on one specific model. Rather, we thoughtfully designed the network to include what we deduced from existing research on long-standing successful networks as essential elements —such as shared goals and careful participant selection. Having a solid design in place—what we refer to as our network “architecture”—gave us firm footing to launch our efforts. But, it hasn’t ended there. We continually revisit and refine the architectural elements as we learn and grow. (You can find more about the theoretical foundation of NW RISE, as well as literature related to the rural school context, professional capital, and education networks, in thePeabody article[external link] I coauthored with Andy Hargreaves and Elizabeth Cox.).
Provide Strong Behind-the-Scenes Support
Though NW RISE is self-directed by the participating districts and educators, Education Northwest’s role is to serve as the “backbone” organization that keeps the collaborative operating, communicating, and moving forward. When we designed NW RISE, our intent was to recede by this point. What we’ve learned is that without a backbone to keep fueling the mission and providing technical support, there is no network. Rather than reduce our role, we’ve worked with the steering committee to clarify it. With backbone support in place and a critical mass of committed network leaders, we are ready to expand the network and bring in new districts to mix in with our veteran NW RISE educators. In doing so, we hope to expand the network’s reach, innovation, and dedication to increasing student engagement in rural schools across our region.