In this season of caps and gowns, there’s a ubiquitous focus on endings in the education field—final exams, closing up classrooms, graduation. I recently attended the closing ceremony for the inaugural cohort of the California Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP). While the meeting marked the end of the program year, it was more importantly a reflection of the beginnings that California EPFP and similar networks can create. The Fellows—mid-career education professionals from across the state—finished the program discussing ways that the new relationships and knowledge could support student learning and success in both K-12 and higher education. Several Fellows spoke about successfully advancing a bill they collaborated on—a result of their connection through EPFP. Others arranged plans to tour each other’s schools and one was planning a legislative briefing to showcase another’s research. As the Fellows left to carpool home, it was the commencement of new relationships that was most exciting to me. 

Networks can bridge important gaps in California, where disconnected educational governance, finance, and data systems can inhibit smooth student progression between K-12 and postsecondary institutions. Particularly in a state where there are no “tables” at the state level where policymakers and practitioners from across the systems can meet about core state infrastructure issues, networks are an important capacity-building mechanism. Educators in some regions of the state have created partnerships across systems and with community and workforce colleagues to advance student success. Without a state longitudinal data infrastructure, they create work-arounds in isolation from each other to locally track student learning and progression, and information about those efforts often does not make its way into state policy discussions. 

"We have a moral obligation to support our students, and the Network allows us to share effective practices and programs across a really large system to achieve that aim."

At EdInsights, we envision a powerful role for evidence-based networks in building capacity for continuous improvement in education, which is why we launched two in 2016-17: California EPFP and the CSU Student Success Network. California EPFP Fellows come from administrative and legislative agencies in Sacramento; they are school teachers, college faculty, and deans; and they are leaders from non-profit organizations, research groups, and system offices. On several occasions, I witnessed them making connections outside their own spheres of influence, sharing their perspectives and goals, and making plans to connect with each other outside of the program meetings. During a California EPFP session in February, a speaker presented data showing how many California students begin community college in remediation (that is, enrolled in courses that are below college-level English or math and that do not carry credit toward a degree); how many of those students complete a certificate or degree; and how disparate the outcomes are across different racial/ethnic groups. The Fellows asked questions about the research, conversed with each other, shared their perspectives, and brainstormed actions they could take to better bridge research with their own work. Several Fellows made plans to follow up, including by inviting the speaker to address their work colleagues. As one Fellow said, the presentation “reminded us why this work is urgent and why we need to collaborate to solve these system issues.” That day, I saw some connections deepen across campuses and systems, and between Sacramento policy staff and educators in the field. 

Similarly, the CSU Student Success Network is providing opportunities for California State University (CSU) faculty, staff, and administrators to share evidence-based practices and learn from each other across campuses. For example, teams from six campuses convened recently to share expertise and activities related to college readiness, and teams from ten campuses convened to discuss their use of data to improve student success. After the college readiness convening, math faculty brought an idea back to their campus and implemented it that semester. Working with colleagues in student affairs, they identified students struggling in remedial math and invited them to a math “boot camp” during spring break. At the camp, students received five half-days of intensive support from an instructor. An administrator from the campus said, “We have a moral obligation to support our students, and the Network allows us to share effective practices and programs across a really large system to achieve that aim.” The Network has now concluded its inaugural academic year and is planning to implement Student Success Labs in 2017-18. By participating in the Labs, campus teams receive support throughout the year to address a pressing student success issue at their campus. 

Those of us at EdInsights hope these network-based efforts will help more people understand and utilize cross-system perspectives and use rigorous evidence when developing policy- or practice-based change. Now that graduates have tossed their caps and put away their gowns, we are excited to see how the new relationships and connections forged through networks will support student learning, progression, and success.