Can Comprehensive Collaboration Improve Outcomes for Students?

Experiments in the Seattle area that involve an array of organizations have ambitious goals.
June 23, 2015
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Three years ago I wrote about the shared law-enforcement arrangements in King County, Wash., where the county sheriff's department provides services to 12 municipalities while allowing sufficient distinction within its ranks to give all of the customer jurisdictions a sense of having "their own" police force.

As that initiative has grown, so has a highly regarded collaboration across multiple local school districts in south Seattle and southern King County. The Road Map Project is a stunning array of foundations, educators, community organizations, parents and researchers aimed at doubling the number of students who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020.

Early planning in 2010 was stimulated by the "collective impact" collaboration framework advanced by John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG, a Boston-based consulting firm. The framework requires a high level of rigor around aligned goals across many organizations, a "backbone" organization, and measurable and measured results.

The Road Map metaphor is an apt one for education. A child can encounter wrong turns and detours, barriers and potholes that pull her off the road from birth through college and career. The parts of the journey are "owned" by different institutions -- the family, the preschool program, and elementary and then secondary education. "Early learning does not connect to primary grades, nor do high schools align well with institutions of higher learning," notes the Road Map. In a diverse region such as the Puget Sound area, with more than 100 languages and concentrations of poverty, fragmentation and inadequate support structures can be devastating.

It is clear in the Seattle area, as in many urban school jurisdictions, that to be successful the journey requires more attention to the path and more wayfinders, especially family and diverse community organizations. Hence, the Road Map's two primary goals are to build strong strategic and operational alignment among those institutions that can improve educational outcomes and to encourage and support parents in their role as their child's first teacher. The commitment to results is expressed in measurable targets and reported on annually.

The comprehensiveness of the Road Map project, which engages dozens of organizations in tightly aligned activities, earned the project a $40 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2012. The project's annual reports suggest both areas of opportunity (improved early childhood education, support for English-language learners, strategies for more meaningful parent involvement, pre-college course enrollment) and persistent challenges (stubborn test scores in reading in certain grades, graduation rates). Overall, progress is steady, but slower than necessary to achieve the targets set for 2020.

Results are reported out not only by school district but also by poverty level and race as well as by English-language-learner and special-education status. But disparate results do not appear to have created an atmosphere of judgment toward the seven school districts, perhaps in large measure because areas of weakness are seen as triggers to finding promising practices.

This latter goal has been substantially enhanced by another Seattle project, the Education Lab, which is a project of the Seattle Times funded by the Gates and Knight foundations. While the Times continues its traditional beat reporting of education news, the EdLab deploys reporters for "solutions journalism," deep analysis of educational strategies that appear to be producing what the journalistic approach's creators, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, refer to as "positive deviant evidence."

A recent series of EdLab reports on school discipline involved interviews with parents, students and educators as well as consultation with a wide range of school climate experts. An open town hall began to build consensus that stronger relationships are key to improving school discipline practices. In a period when "zero tolerance" has been blamed for inappropriate incarceration of students and high dropout rates, building support for best practices that protect the educational climate and keep students in school is essential to school-district success.

That kind of comprehensive support can only result from collaboration across a wide range of institutions. Clearly that is happening with the Seattle region's concerted effort to prepare all students for the 21st-century economy. We'll see how much such a comprehensive approach can move the needle.