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Problems of Practice

Build Internally vs. Buy Externally: How should we develop our talent and resource pipeline?

Key Takeaways

  • External partnership can be a powerful way to cultivate internal capacity. The key is in developing long-term relationships that enable knowledge- and skill-transfer, rather than outsourcing capacity over the long term.
  • External partnership can also be a helpful way to enable system leaders to step back and give schools greater choice and agency. By playing a “connector” role, rather than a “director” role, leaders can focus their energy on support and development, as opposed to guiding school implementation strategy.
  • Schools do not need to be bound by the predetermined “offerings” of external partners or products. As one school leader told us, “We realized that we were altering our behavior to suit our technology platform, rather than the other way around, so we stopped using it.” The product and service should serve the system’s strategy, not drive it.
Adult sits on top of surface, typing on laptop


No system’s context is exactly the same as another’s, and therefore pathways to system change cannot completely replicate each other. While case studies on system-wide implementation offer inspiration and ideas, they can be difficult to apply in new contexts.

Regardless of context, however, all leaders interested in scaling new approaches face choices about how to lead system change in a way that maximizes benefits to students. In interviews across the country, we found that certain decisions kept surfacing as critical to success, many of which contained competing priorities - forces pulling in different directions. Rather than choose one priority and ignore the other, leaders explain, the key is to figure out how to manage both in a way that best fits your context.

Overview of the Challenge

Leaders involved with blended learning implementation for a number of years consistently reminded us that the work takes time. Ken Eastwood, former superintendent of Middletown School District, NY, told us, “You can’t change things in three to five years. I’ve been here 14 years and we’re still cleaning up the edges.” Similarly, Deagan Andrews, director of instructional technology in Greeley-Evans School District, CO, explained, “We’ve been doing this for five years and it still feels like we’re just beginning. I honestly think 25 years is where sustainability hits.” Given this sustainability challenge (with limited resources), districts/CMOs face important decisions about how to build capacity. Sourcing external support (e.g. resources that other districts or CMOs have developed or partnering with intermediary organizations that provide services like professional development) means practitioners do not need to continually “reinvent the wheel.” Alternatively, building internal capacity enables long-term sustainability through context fit and a strong leadership pipeline.

Why Buy/Partner Externally?

Bringing in external resources carries many benefits. Partnering with external organizations (for example, to assess school readiness or to train teachers) frees up capacity for system leaders to focus on other things. Bringing in curricula that has already been developed not only allows teachers to focus on teaching, not resource building, but it often has the added benefit of having been previously tested. Partnering with other organizations can widen networks and strengthen ties with other community organizations (such as local universities). Finally, bringing in external support can often be cheaper in the long run than cultivating new capabilities from scratch internally.

Here are some examples that show the benefit of buying external services and/or resources:

Why Build Internally?

By building internal capacity, school systems set themselves up for sustainability despite resource or personnel constraints. Teachers involved in developing new tools, curricula, or running professional development can prepare to take on future leadership roles. Building “in-house” tools, such as district dashboards, creates a strong fit with the particular needs of the system. Perhaps most importantly, when people are engaged in designing, and not just implementing, new practices, they will be more engaged and have a deeper connection to the practice.

Here are some examples that show the benefit of cultivating internal capacity:

What the Data Say

In a survey of 89 leaders from 60 systems across the country:

  • 52% of respondents claimed to prioritize internal capacity building, while 22% leaned towards external support
  • Districts serving high-income populations reported this question as highly relevant (and also make up a larger number of those who rate themselves as leaning towards external support)
  • Districts serving low-income populations make up a larger percent of those focused on internal capacity building.
  • 90% of respondents reported devoting time and energy to working through this challenge, and 45% reported it as a “top priority”.

Want a deeper dive into the data? Explore our white paper, entitled Look Both Ways for more information.

Take It Further

To jumpstart your own discussions, consider these questions:

  • Where would it be useful for schools to go through a deliberate design process and where might it be an unnecessary expenditure of energy? What is the teacher’s role in the process?
  • What roles will you need staffed internally in three years if you were to scale effectively? In five years? Where will those people come from? Where does the funding come from?
  • To what extent should local school context drive partnering decisions? Where should partnerships be centrally managed vs. locally managed?