History of Dana Center Network Convening

From the Dana Center’s earliest origins in the research of our director, Uri Treisman, that led to the development of the Emerging Scholars Program, the Dana Center has recognized the importance of bringing together people to share and learn from each other.

When the Dana Center began leading the Texas Statewide Systemic Initiative in the mid-1990s, we realized that to develop mathematics, science, and leadership resources and professional development to support implementation of the newly adopted Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, we needed to bring together experts in content, curriculum development, teaching, and leadership from across the state. We christened these expert groups Action Teams. In every team, individuals collaborated to arrive at a common understanding of issues and together developed new solutions to the identified common problems. Now that the Dana Center is working nationally, we continue this strategy.

In our first formal network, we engaged for higher education faculty across Texas who were involved the preparation of prospective mathematics teachers. The first meeting of the Higher Education network brought together faculty from mathematics departments and education departments to collaborate in improving the preparation of preservice teachers. That network continued for 14 years (1995 to 2009).

URBAN MATHEMATICS LEADERSHIP NETWORK

In 2004, the Dana Center, working with Achieve, Inc., approached the Dana Foundation and the Noyce Foundation with proposals to build an Urban Mathematics Leadership Network of six large school districts in six states that would work together to create common solutions to common problems.

As part of this work, these districts would attempt to identify what we called “practices worthy of attention”—that is, promising practices in member districts that might be reengineered for use at scale.

This Urban Mathematics Leadership Network rapidly expanded, and by 2008, the network had grown to encompass 22 districts, serving almost half of all urban schoolchildren in the U.S.

One of the practices worthy of attention that we reengineered for use at scale and enhanced with current research grew out of our UMLN work in Chicago and work with the Minority Student Achievement Network.

Specifically, we created a set of tools for increasing student motivation and productive persistence in the face of academic struggle (the Academic Youth Development program). Another example is our work to develop a double-blocked algebra program (Intensified Algebra) that serves the broad diversity of students who struggle with this pivotal high school course. This innovation builds directly on some of the most creative work of UMLN districts in supporting students with special education needs.

In short, the UMLN has functioned as an effective mechanism for reflection on district practices and as an important partner in developing and disseminating effective strategies and research-based tools.

Nonetheless, it became clear very early that this networked community could be further strengthened.

We observed, for example, that very few of the directors of mathematics in these urban districts had direct access to their superintendents or even to their chief academic officers.

In fact, many such directors faced three to four administrative levels between them and the individuals who set district policy and strategy. Moreover, these mathematics directors identified as one of their highest needs better access to their district’s leaders.

To address this concern, the Dana Center made it a strategic priority to connect with the Aspen Institute’s Program in Education and Society, which had independently built the effective Aspen Urban Superintendents Network—which included a significant number of the UMLN district superintendents.

Dana Center director Uri Treisman approached Aspen about collaboration on this issue and was invited to serve as a senior advisor to the Urban Superintendents Network.

URBAN DISTRICT LEADERSHIP NETWORKS

Shortly after Uri Treisman assumed the role of senior advisor at Aspen, the Dana Center, in partnership with Achieve, Inc., and the Aspen Institute, developed a successful proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to more tightly coordinate several existing networks of chief academic officers (the Aspen Institute’s CAO Network), directors of literacy (Aspen’s Urban Literacy Leadership Network), and directors of mathematics (our Urban Mathematics Leadership Network).

This new network—the Urban District Leadership Networks—launched in 2010 and is managed by the Dana Center in collaboration with the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program (under the aegis of the Aspen Urban Superintendents Network).

The UDLN’s overarching purpose is to address critical issues in American education, such as high school reform, human capital management, and now the rollout of the Common Core State Standards.

The UDLN focuses on creating scalable teacher and leader support systems to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment in large and diverse school systems.

A key goal of the UDLN is to support collaboration among senior district personnel who would otherwise often work in isolation.

The idea is to create a setting in which these individuals, as the leaders of different levels of district management, can coordinate their work with their colleagues at home and their peers around the country.

By creating a common setting in which these groups can do their work, we are able to be much more helpful than if we work with just mathematics instructors or just superintendents.

The coordinated networks of the UDLN are proving to be a powerful vehicle for aligning instructional improvement strategies with broader district system strategies.