Collaboration in Education: Lessons from the Field

The Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference (ELC) recently convened several hundred practitioners, funders, district leaders, and other education stakeholders to discuss some of the most pressing questions facing education reform today. The theme at this year’s conference was “Reframe, Reimagine, Reignite”: to reframe what progress means for education, reimagine the steps to take collectively, and reignite the movement toward a better future. In order to achieve this ambitious conference theme, one topic of conversation that emerged was the importance of collaboration of varying shapes and sizes.

Fittingly, my FSG colleague Valerie Bockstette and I had to opportunity to facilitate a session at ELC that looked at many forms of collaboration in education: grantee / funder collaboration, school / community collaboration, district / charter collaboration and cradle to career collective impact initiatives. Joining us on the panel were Kenneth Kern, Director of Training, Turnaround for Children; Elizabeth McNamee, Program Officer, Education, Robin Hood Foundation; and Angela Romans, Principal Associate, District Redesign and Leadership, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Despite the many different models discussed, many of the conditions of collective impact came up as success factors:

  • Importance of a common agenda: Even in collaborations between one funder and one or more grantees, it is pivotal to not just collaborate for collaboration sake, but to actually rally around a common objective that can be reached better in partnership. For example, through Robin Hood’s partnerships with grantees, partners have shared a stake in a broader objective of the collaboration, which has increased buy-in and trust among all players involved.
  • Power of shared metrics for systems strengthening: The panel and breakout discussions that followed raised the importance of defining success and getting people bought into the process before determining shared metrics. For example, through Angela Romans’ work on a cradle to career initiative in Providence, RI, various partners have used data to inform how to respond collaboratively to strengthen connections in the local education system.
  • Need for coordinated, yet tailored action plans: Every community / school relationship is different, and the right entry point can make or break success. Ken Kern described how district leaders can often broker effective community partnerships for multiple schools in a district. In other instances, it may make more sense for principles to initiate school-level partnerships with community organizations when there is a specific need to act on quickly.
  • Vital role of communication: For collaboration to work effectively between district leaders and charter operators, there must be a meaningful two-way exchange of information. A charter operator at the ELC session told me that that humility was a necessary attribute that leaders from traditional public schools and charter schools must embody when they come to the table to communicate and learn from each other.
  • Importance of infrastructure support in multi-stakeholder collaboration: One pitfall to avoid is assuming cross-sector collaboration will happen without dedicated resources to serve as facilitator, convener, and other important behind-the-scenes work to keep the process moving forward. This is particularly important for collective impact efforts that involve multiple stakeholders working together to address a complex problem that no one organization can address on its own.

And finally, several intangibles came up in our discussion, including trust, patience, flexibility, and comfort with contribution rather than attribution came up in every discussion. Overall, this ELC session underscored that influencing lasting change in the education sector requires various forms of collaboration, which must take into account the local context, engage multiple actors, and incorporate a data-driven understanding of the problem or opportunity to address.



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