Partners in 100Kin10’s network of over 280 organizations come together to collaborate and problem-solve on key issues in STEM education. (Photo credit 100Kin10)

No matter what happens in November, at least one feature of President Obama’s legacy in math and science education will carry over into the next administration: the nationwide effort to add 100,000 excellent STEM teachers to America’s K-12 classrooms by 2021. It’s been five years since President Obama presented this goal in his State of the Union address, and while it could have been taken as just a lofty, fleeting idea, and left to fade away, a new, networked model for social change is actually making it happen. We call results achieved in this way networked impact.

The day after the President’s speech, a group of 28 organizations (including Carnegie Corporation of New York, where I worked at the time) got together, united in the desire to turn that goal into a reality. We asked: What would it actually take to recruit, train, and retain that many STEM teachers? The nonprofits, corporations, and universities gathered around the table all came back with different ideas. In reviewing them, we quickly recognized that achieving impact on this scale needed every single one. It would require bold, unique commitments from a vast network of partners that could act by building on their strengths. Furthermore, we realized, those partners would need to be supported and held accountable for progress. And they would have to be able to learn, and adapt their activities as needed, along the way.

Out of that meeting came 100Kin10, of which I am the co-founder and executive director, and which now comprises a network of more than 280 of the nation’s top academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies, and government agencies. At the halfway mark to 2021, these 280 organizations have added nearly 40,000 new STEM teachers across the country, and we’re on track to reach the President’s goal on time. What’s more, we have enlisted new teachers who never previously considered going into STEM education, while helping tens of thousands more stay and keep growing in the profession.

This is not the first time a group of organizations has gotten together to tackle something that seems impossible. We’re indebted to collective efforts such as 100,000 Homes and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, which, like us, are re-imagining collaboration for social change. Nor are we alone in taking a multi-sector, systems-level approach to impact—consider the Center for Care Innovations’ all-hands-on-deck approach to rethinking healthcare, or the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative’s global framework for scientific research and advocacy. In this increasingly complex and connected world, these initiatives and others are operating on the understanding that a new kind of collaboration has become not only possible but also necessary.

How Networked Impact Efforts Work

We believe the networked impact approach, which breaks the mold for how organizations collaborate and make change, can be applied to other large, systemic challenges. To do that, though, it has to be better understood. To that end, we offer here an overview on how it works:

The networked impact model draws on some familiar aspects of collective impact—such as a common agenda, shared measurements, and support systems that groups such as StriveTogether have used to great effect. It also embraces the ethos of network entrepreneurs, who value the overriding mission and trusting relationships within a network above the brand or capacity of any single group in it. Indeed, the speed of a network is trust: The more trust, the faster you move.

But where networked impact pushes the envelope on other modes of collaboration is in the way a small, nimble backbone organization coordinates, amplifies, and challenges hundreds of partners not only to reach a particular goal, but to ensure the sustainability of the success by identifying and tackling the underlying challenges that caused the problem in the first place.

A networked impact effort doesn’t require that every group of its kind be part of the effort, so it’s not “collective” in that sense—imagine trying to get every STEM or healthcare or environmental organization in the country around one table—but it does require a representative, diverse sampling of the best problem-solvers who influence your cause.

Nor is achieving networked impact about directly influencing change at one school or one city, or in one particular way; it’s about getting all the key players together and empowering them—and sometimes imploring them—to figure out what’s needed to achieve system-level impact, and then supporting those efforts.

We are pretty hands-off at 100Kin10—we formally check-in with individual partners one to two times a year—but we’re very deliberate about trying to create structures and opportunities through and in which unforeseen connections can occur.

Ultimately, we believe that our success to date, and the recipe that will keep us moving in the right direction, depends on five main ingredients:

  1. Bold, measurable, and unique commitments: Networked impact relies on likely and unlikely allies bringing their own best practices to the table. Today some 100Kin10 partners prepare thousands of new STEM teachers, while others train just 20 teachers but experiment with new approaches to teacher training. Still others are trying out new forms of online teacher support, or help teachers hone their instructional practice through intensive professional development. Some don’t work with teachers at all, instead improving the operating environment in which all the other work happens through media, funding, or policy. In networked impact efforts, there is no single “correct” approach.
  2. Diverse, multi-sector collaboration, at scale: It’s not enough to get every group in one field together, or to diversify at just the local level. In our approach to networked impact, every sector plays a role, bringing together unlikely allies such as the Girl Scouts and Chevron. We also bring together groups that historically have clashed, such as management and labor, and alternative and traditional approaches to teacher preparation. And to achieve impact you need scale, which is why we have network partners in all 50 states.
  3. Knowledge sharing that encourages accountability: We put learning at the center of the network, with 100Kin10 functioning as a knowledge broker and “connection concierge.” Partners regularly share best practices in our “Steal This” sessions, along with data on their work, including specific practices, strengths, and weaknesses. To maintain momentum, we rely on “carrots” (not sticks)—for example, we create high-profile opportunities for network partners to share their successes—and we incentivize innovation, hosting an annual six-month fellowship to develop and troubleshoot new innovations before funding them. We’ve already seen tremendous results from this fellowship: Next year, an inaugural fellow, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, will launch a Mobile Engineering Lab that will bring engineering teaching to underserved communities.
  4. A Focus on problem-solving at the root: It would have been a lot easier for 100Kin10’s network to provide American’s classrooms with 100,000 excellent STEM teachers without addressing the underlying issues that created the original need. But we would have accomplished the task without solving the real problem. Instead, we’re mapping the impediments to excellent STEM teaching, along with their root causes. Through this process, we’ve identified seven “grand challenges” and 100-plus root causes, getting at the source of many well-documented challenges, such as teaching’s lack of prestige, and less-appreciated challenges, such as teaching’s lack of leadership opportunities and room to experiment in the classroom. As we map these challenges, we’ve helped partners co-invest in innovative solutions to address them.
  5. Design thinking: Finally, 100Kin10 has fostered a design thinking mentality by focusing on end-users, recognizing that one size does not fit all, dropping failed projects, strategically scaling up successful ones, and letting the network determine what kind of solutions it pursues.

The networked impact approach facilitates the pursuit of very ambitious, once-unimaginable goals in a way that invites individual organizations to contribute from their strengths, without getting lost or feeling overwhelmed. Our hope is that by charting a course to bring 100,000 new STEM teachers into America’s classrooms, we are also contributing to a new way to tackle some of society’s most intractable system-wide challenges.