I recently had the rare opportunity to spend the better part of two days reflecting on my work. I spent those days with a group of visitors from Germany who came to Seattle to learn about an approach they have heard is gaining momentum in the U.S. as a way of improving education. They were interested in understanding how “cradle-to-career” Collective Impact initiatives work, and their potential application to improving education and closing achievement gaps in Germany.
Our visitors came at an interesting time. Our team at FSG has been working with the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) to build a regional cradle-to-college and career initiative for over a year and half, and we recently reached a pivotal point in the work. With an organizing framework of a shared goal and common metrics, called the Road Map for Education Results, established early on, our current phase of work focuses on how our region is going to band together in new ways to reach the ambitious goal of doubling the number of students in our region who complete a college degree or career credential. With the shift from the “what” to the “how” of the Road Map Project comes the riddle of shared ownership. Our German friends sought to understand how you go about getting people to not only come to meetings but to fundamentally change the way that they work, not only for their own good or the good of their organizations, but for the good of a collective effort that is beyond the reach of their own individual roles, responsibilities, and institutions.
It’s a hard question, and one that can easily mean the success or failure of a collective impact initiative. Collective Impact assumes the participation of cross-sectoral actors who come together to work in differentiated but reinforcing ways and hold one another accountable for achieving a common goal. Reflecting on the accomplishments of the Road Map Project to date, several factors seem critical for progress toward the Holy Grail of shared ownership:
- Engaging Action-Oriented Leaders – Bringing committed and action-oriented leaders to the table is crucial. Having CEO-level leadership brings credibility to the project, but also ensures that there is a group of stakeholders, and their affiliated organizations, ready and willing to take action and make change. With the Road Map Project, several advisory group members have deployed their own time and staff resources to convene work groups focusing on a range of issues, including how to best serve English Language Learner students, how to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education to meet the demands of our current and future job market, and how to create more effective methods of defining and measuring non-academic indicators that are critical to student success and that are the focus of many of our region’s community-based organizations. Engaging system-level leaders has also been crucial for catalyzing the system-level change we seek. For example, the local superintendents and community college presidents, as detailed below, have been convened by key Road Map leaders and are taking concrete actions to increase the collaboration and alignment between the local K-12 and community college systems.
- Using Data as a Call to Action – The role of data in this work cannot be overstated. Backbone organizations like CCER, as the driving force behind collective impact initiatives, have a critical role to play in bringing data to the conversation. Data is central to making the case for change. When you consider the state of education in our region, it is hard to ignore the need for improvement knowing that less than 1 in 4 students from the Road Map region go onto earn a college degree or career credential. That number drops to 1 in 10 when you look at African American, Hispanic, or Native American students. Data is a compelling way of demonstrating that large-scale improvement is needed. Data is also useful for identifying existing programs and initiatives that are having an effect on student outcomes, and can be built upon in developing a regional approach to systemic change. Seeing elementary literacy improvements resulting from data-driven instruction in one district, or increased college readiness from greater access to rigorous coursework among high school graduates at another district, shows what is possible. Data makes the case for taking action and inspires what is possible.
- Enabling New Connections and Partnerships – Creating opportunities for people to connect with one another can serve as an unexpected impetus for action. The Education Results Network (ERN), a group of hundreds of people working on education in the Road Map region, is convened quarterly to share updates on the Road Map project and gather input. These meetings have provided an invaluable opportunity to connect individuals and organizations to one another in unexpected ways. Through meeting new people and learning about new efforts at ERN meetings, individuals in the region are finding new ways to collaborate. At high levels of leadership, new connections have been similarly powerful. The region’s superintendents and community college presidents have been meeting regularly for the past year and a half, and are partnering in new ways. Last spring, the group issued an early acceptance letter to all of the local community colleges to all upcoming high school graduates, letting them know that they are eligible to attend any of the region’s seven community colleges. More recently, the group deployed a task force to work on aligning math standards between local high schools and community colleges to increase students’ readiness for college-level math and decrease the need for remedial coursework once students are in college.
Each of these factors has been central to demonstrating that change is needed and creating a path forward. CCER is an important engine for keeping the many and complex pieces of this work on track, and bringing others along – and spurring them to action – is among the most crucial roles it can play in this work. What other factors do you think support shared ownership? In your work, have you seen other ways that organizations come together and assume responsibility and accountability for actions that are beyond their own individual domain? What enabled this shift?
It will be interesting to see where the Road Map Project is a year from now, and see how the countless individuals and organizations in our region are working in new and inspiring ways to collectively improve outcomes for our students. I look forward to having the chance to reflect on where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, and maybe even having the opportunity to share key lessons with our friends in Germany.