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More Communities Explore Partnerships to Improve Education: Report

By guest blogger Marva Hinton

This post first appeared on the Time and Learning blog. 

More communities across the country are looking into cross-sector collaboration when it comes to education.

That was the finding of a new report by Teachers College, Columbia University. The Wallace Foundation commissioned the study, titled "Collective Impact and the New Generation of Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education: A Nationwide Scan," and released the results Tuesday. (The Wallace Foundation also supports coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning in Education Week.)

A senior officer with the foundation says the report provides a good portrait of cross-sector collaborations across the nation.

"We want to better understand how they operate, including how people start collaborating and move toward a common goal," said Hilary Rhodes, the foundation's senior research and evaluation officer, in a press release. "This scan is the first step toward that."

Although the report does not specifically mention after-school programs, collaborations are often part of these initiatives.

So why are these partnerships becoming more attractive to school districts, government agencies, community organizations, and nonprofit institutions?

The study finds several factors.

"One is just the general frustration with the notion that local governments can sit back and wait for these issues to be solved by either state or national action," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Henig was one of two principal investigators on the project. He said gridlock brought on by partisan politics seems to be leading some local decision makers to take matters into their own hands when it comes to achieving positive educational outcomes.

New Model

The report examines a new model of collaboration known as collective impact. The nonprofit consulting group FSG coined the term in 2011. It's characterized by collaborations that draw broadly on public and private partnerships and are not reliant on initiatives driven by school districts or government policies alone. These partnerships also feature a heavy emphasis on setting clear, measurable goals and monitoring progress toward those goals through the analysis of data.

"The use of data outcomes at this point does not represent a fully developed effort with multiple measures, diverse measures, sophisticated analysis," said Henig. "Most groups are at the elementary school stage rather than the high school or college stage of use of data and measurement."

Henig says his impression is that this may be due to the fact that some groups are just getting started and/or they have limited data availability.

"It's very easy to, if you want to pick an outcome measure, say let's use standardized test scores and graduation levels because that's data that every community has available to it," said Henig. "There may be many communities that have a notion that they'd like to be looking at other things, less test-score related, more socio-emotional levels, for example, but they don't yet have access to the kind of data that would let them track those over time."

Henig noted that it's also hard to get groups to agree on what the specific goals and priorities should be.

The study found that these projects are growing in popularity, but Henig is quick to point out that their research is still at the beginning stages.

"This isn't meant as an evaluation of who's doing better and is it working," said Henig. "It's really an effort to say there's something people are talking about, what is it, and where is it, and what can we say about that."

The researchers are now doing deep case studies at programs in Buffalo, N.Y, Milwaukee, Wis., and Portland, Ore. They hope to get a sense of what things look like on the ground and what challenges these collaborations face. 

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