Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education Resources

In recent years, communities caught the collective impact fever and established robust cross-sector collaborations to improve young people’s educational outcomes. Interest was booming. Businesses signed up. Expectations were high. What does research tell us about how these efforts have fared?

The Wallace Foundation commissioned Teachers College, Columbia University, to conduct a study to gain insights around how collaborations were established and their prospects for survival and success. Although they face a number of challenges, “current collaborations show promise for creating a new kind of venue to bring local partners together who often have not cooperated in the past and have even been in conflict,” the authors say. “Importantly, most of the collaborations we studied seem to have helped calm often-contentious urban education politics and establish enough stability for partners to move forward.”

Between 2015 and 2017, the researchers took an in-depth look at three collaborations—Say Yes Buffalo, Milwaukee Succeeds, and All Hands Raised in Multnomah County, Oregon—and a more limited look at five others (Alignment Nashville, Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority, Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, Oakland Community Schools, and Providence Children and Youth Cabinet).

During a recent webinar, the researchers (Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education; Michael Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice and Executive Director, Center for Educational Equity; and Carolyn Riehl, Associate Professor of Sociology and Education Policy) discussed the challenges faced in these communities, including working with school districts that may see collaboration as a distraction from their core goals; finding ways to engage marginalized groups in the decision-making process; securing stable, long-term funding; and managing expectations that may be unrealistic. In spite of such hurdles, the initiatives have shown sufficient potential for benefiting education reform, which were also explored in this session.

Here are five key questions that were explored during the session:

1. Why the interest in cross-sector collaboration as a “new” strategy?

Jeff Henig

So some of the core ideas behind cross-sector collaboration have been with us for over 100 years. In context, we trace the idea of cross-sector collaboration back to turn-of-the-century urban settlement houses like Jane Addams Hull-House – arguably the most influential US settlement house – which started by offering neighborhood residents enrichment programs such as classes in art appreciation and literature. As Addams and the founders of Hull-House came to understand better the neighborhood needs and the needs of the immigrant and lower income communities they were serving, they added childcare, health services, public baths, afterschool recreation programs, and classes for children and adults, as well as other kinds of services.

During The Depression, Flint, Michigan, under then-mayor and later philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott, opened schools to a wide range of programs, serving children and working parents. Eleanor Roosevelt actually brought this Flint effort to national attention with a newspaper editorial she wrote, in which he called it a remarkable community plan by which they coordinate all the various community forces: industrial, social, philanthropic, recreational, and educational.

During the war on poverty, programs sought to mount locally-coordinated initiatives by deliberately bypassing siloed governmental bureaucracies and sending federal money down to community action in model city agencies at the neighborhood or community level that, at least in theory, had the flexibility to craft local solutions that met local context and local needs.

These episodic manifestations of cross-sector approaches seem to have emerged during times when society and government have been willing to see youth and family challenges as intertwined with other issues like poverty, race, housing, health, and crime, but were often followed by phases favoring narrower approaches either because the stakeholders had not come up with successful solutions or over time they lost their will, patience, or resources to keep going on. Now, we suggest that several forces contributed to the more recent resurgence of interest in collective action.

First, the recession that ran from December 2007 to June 2009 was unusually long and severe. In the six years leading up to the recession, total public spending on K-12 education had risen by 12.5 percent in constant dollars. Over the following six years, it declined by 2.6 percent. This kind of fiscal pressure created an environment in which communities were desperate for lower cost strategies to improve education, and one selling point for cross-sector collaboration has been the prospect of getting more bang for the buck by reducing duplicative efforts. At least that’s what’s been hoped for.

Secondly, while No Child Left Behind was enacted with strong bipartisan support in 2002, over time frustration with high-stakes testing and the lack of promised gains led to disillusionment among many, and for many people that tainted the idea of top-down federal- led reform, likely contributing to a sense that local communities can and should reassert themselves as the definers and drivers of educational improvement.

A third factor had to do with protecting reform from turnover and form a leadership group. The average tenure of a large-city school superintendent is generally short, between three and five years. Succeeding leaders typically bring their own ideas and then downplay or dismantle those identified with their predecessors, and so local efforts at education reform have often had a stop-and-go pattern. Stop, go, and stop again. This pattern has been characterized as spinning wheels because there may be lots of action, but little traction. The contemporary movement for cross-sector collaboration has appeal in part because it promises to embed the reform impulse in a broader coalition of civic and community leaders and their organizations. Ones that will stay in place even if elected leaders turn over or superintendents leave the community.

A fourth factor may be eagerness by many to move past the polarizing debate which dominated the NCLB era, which pitted those who argue that focused change in schools can raise achievement against those who argue that schools really can’t make much difference without addressing factors like concentrated poverty, public health disparities, inadequate social services, and mental health services. Instead of an either-or answer, many now seem ready for a both-and approach, combining reform of instruction with efforts to reduce inequalities and increased supports for relatively disadvantaged families and communities. The growing interest in full-service community schools as an approach to coordinating delivery of various kinds of social services to children and families using the school as a delivery focus is one manifestation of this both-and approach.

Finally, three somewhat distinctive elements of the more recent manifestation of collaboration, under the terminology of collective impact, involve the idea of anchoring a collaboration in a backbone organization, the strategic use of data to measure and direct progress, and national support networks like STRIVE. This appealed especially to philanthropic funders, because these three ideas picked up on the funders’ own evolution into more strategic giving approaches. From their standpoint, all three ideas promised to make it easier for foundations to leverage their money, letting local backbone organizations handle some of the challenges of coordination and allocation, generating the output and outcome data that their own boards or the foundations’ own boards have been expecting, and creating a national support structure capable of sharing lessons across places and helping grantees manage through challenging situations as well as scouting sites for expansion.

2. What resources and services have collaborations provided in early childhood education, K-12 schooling, and post-secondary education and employment?

Carolyn Riehl 

We wanted to know what the collaborations were trying to do and why. We explore that question both through the national scan and our case studies, and this research revealed that many of these programs were indeed trying to achieve population-level improvements in outcomes for youth. They did so through fairly common series of actions. They often took a cradle-to-career orientation, recognizing that development and progress happens along the continuum of the youth’s lifespan, and trying to impact key benchmark points along that continuum. They increasingly acknowledged the importance of providing comprehensive wrap-around supports so that students could be ready and able to learn in schools.

Many of the collaborations acknowledged the need to engage in what they often called a root cause analysis, trying to not just change the provision of services, but also understand what were the barriers and challenges in getting to the markers that they were looking for. They often took a consistent approach with the use of data. They identified benchmarks for success and indicators for what they were trying to accomplish, and made those very visible on their websites and in their communications with the public. Many also recognized fairly early on the need to develop a strategy for these initiatives that would be sustainable. They often started out using soft money and recognized the vagaries in the way that that comes and goes, and tried to ensure they had the people, the resources, and the organizational infrastructure available and ready to last for the long haul.

Given these ambitious intentions, what we observed (typically we were studying collaborations a few years into their implementation phase) was a little more limited. The collaborations reflected the difficulties of addressing everything at once, even when they were large and had many partners. They often had to make decisions to target services and strategies that they could find funding for, that there was sufficient local interest in, and that they had the capacity to actually address. These did tend to occur along that cradle-to-career continuum, but the pattern and array of services differed across the collaborations. We saw, for instance, efforts to improve early childhood education by strengthening teachers and staff workers in early childhood centers.

We saw a number of school-based interventions, most that were initiated at the school district level. The collaborations were trying to be supportive partners. In addition to the college promise efforts to get funding and scholarships to students to attend college, there were programs available that were put in place to smooth that transition to make college more available and to increase students’ applying for financial aid, which is one of the barriers to applying to college. Some collaborations began internship programs and mentoring programs to encourage students as they moved from high school to college, and then into the job sector.

Again, there was a wide array of wrap-around services that the initiatives tried to put in place having to do with health services, social services, even legal supports. As one can imagine, it took time to implement these services, and most of the programs found that they needed to scale back the initial outcome expectations. They were achieving some of their benchmarks and success markers, but not as readily and as comprehensively as they intended, but they did continue to track markers.

Many of these collaborations, they wanted to develop indicators and to develop data systems that would track them. Often the easiest, most readily available indicators were the kinds of things that school systems already track, about student performance in courses, high school graduation rates, etc. So those were the most prominent indicators that the collaborations were using, but they were also the trickiest ones to make progress on, particularly for the programs that weren’t really offering services and interventions related to what was going on inside schools and classrooms.

There were measurements of kindergarten readiness that were used by about a quarter of the collaborations we looked at in the national scan. Pre-K enrollment was tracked in about ten percent of the programs. On the other end of the spectrum, post-secondary enrollment and post-secondary completion, were tracked in about a fifth of the programs. They also were getting at the root cause analysis and the deeper factors that play a role in students’ success. Some less-common indicators the collaborations were paying attention to were things like student attendance, parent engagement, school safety, and access to extra-curricular activities. A lot was going on and the array of services and interventions was quite different in each of the collaborations.

3. How do cross-sector collaborations work with local school systems?

Michael Rebell

The motivation for many of the business groups, non-profit organizations, and other entities that joined these collaborations was concern about what was going on in education in their cities, both in terms of leadership turnover but also less than stellar outcomes in many cases. This was a way that the larger community could assist, pressure, whatever word you want to use in their relationship with the school districts. That raised serious questions about what the relationship between this larger collaborative and the school districts would be. On the one hand, the collaborative needed the cooperation of the school district because the central focus was going to be on improving outcomes for children. On the other hand, from the school district’s point of view, this was a little tricky.

On the one hand, if they could get assistance, especially resource assistance, they would welcome it. On the other, the school districts were very often jealous about their prerogatives, and with good reason, they also said, “We know a lot about education.” Many of these other groups did not know that much about education, even though they were all motivated to want to improve it. So what we found was a great range of approaches that the various collaboratives that we studied undertook and their relations with the school districts. In some areas they work together really well; the collaboratives found ways to be very helpful to the school districts without in any way threatening or undermining their autonomy and their success. Nashville is a particularly good example of that.

In its statement of purpose and its theory of action, the Alignment Nashville group specifically said that their purpose is to assist the school district in carrying out the strategic action plan. When there was a leadership change along the way, and there was a new strategic action plan, the whole coalition shifted their focus to be more in line with what the new strategic action plan was. So there was a very good working relationship there. Each of their strategic action teams, alignment teams they called them, was headed by somebody from the business community or the nonprofit community, with the school district having joint leadership.

In Milwaukee also, there was a good understanding between Milwaukee Succeeds and the school district. The tricky thing in Milwaukee is there was a very big issue about the role of charters in Milwaukee. There were concerns about private schools, a large Catholic school sector. The collaborative work had to gingerly and at the same time relate to each of those entities and carve out areas, particular projects where the collaborative could be helpful, and each of those sectors could join in and work on the issues.

In Portland, we had another model where the collaborative that developed All Hands Raised that had a history originally of working with the Portland School Board and the Portland School District. Once they formed this broader collaborative, it was really a countywide collaborative, not just in the city. With the support from the Portland School District, the collaborative reached out to other school districts in the county, about six of them in total.

They all agreed that certain programs became priorities, especially ones focused on equity for low-income students and students of color. They carved out this area. They weren’t directly getting involved in major education initiatives, aside from the carved out areas, and that worked very well.

We have a third pattern that was emphasized by Minneapolis, Buffalo, and Oakland, as Jeff and Carolyn mentioned, the idea of comprehensive services is something that most of the collaboratives emphasized in general, and in these cities in particular what the collaborative had to offer to the school district was real support in those areas of comprehensive services. For example, in Buffalo, one thing that the Say Yes Organization did was beef up the district’s ability to provide afterschool programs, summer programs, and health clinics in many of the schools, and for some of that they used their own seed money.

They were also very effective in working out arrangements where, in regard to summer programs, they got the county to be very supportive and provide money, personnel, and other supports. This was the ideal coalition-collaborative arrangement that was exemplified by the wrap-around services that Say Yes was able to initiate and build into the system, and eventually they phased out of financial support, but those important wrap-around services have continued. In Oakland, the pattern was a community-school district orientation. The arrangement that was being supported was to make every school in Oakland a community school by definition or a school that worked to provide all their students a range of important wrap-around services. It was not a collaborative that brought in groups outside the city of Oakland, but we use it as an example of collaboration on a school level.

Oakland has been a very successful example of mounting these community schools in a major urban area. Minneapolis had a very interesting twist on the wrap-around services model because the Northwest Achievement Zone, as the collaborative organization there, had a very interesting arrangement where they were able to assign community people as staff members to work with students and families, and pull in the particular services that each family needed. It was not only afterschool tutoring or summer programs or preschool, but it was things like housing assistance or employment assistance. That was the nature of the wrap-around services in Minneapolis. One of the other things that these groups accomplished in some of the areas was what we called calming down toxic climate for education.

In Buffalo, before Say Yes arrived there were pitched battles with racial themes with the union and the school district. Many people had really questioned why Say Yes was going into this district, which had historically been known as one of the most contentious, politicized, difficult school districts in the state, if not the country. It is clear that just organizing to approach Say Yes, to convince them to come to the city was in and of itself an event that brought many of these groups together, and Say Yes did set up management organizations, ways of organizing what they were doing and what the school district was doing that really had a positive effect.

In Milwaukee, we did have a previous history and an ongoing history of real contention between the charter section and the school district per se, and also separate issues involving private schools. Milwaukee Succeeds was successful to a certain degree. They haven’t fully overcome some of those tensions but the presence of the collaborative really made a difference.

We don’t want to say though that these relationships were always more or less positive. In most places they were more or less positive, but there were times when the relationship between the school district and the collaborative did not work out very well. Savannah was a particular case in point. Right from the beginning, there was some competition between the school board superintendent and the main outside organization that became the spearhead for the collaborative in applying for the money and speaking with the main philanthropic funder, and those tensions never disappeared. Even when the collaborative got going, the money was sent through the organization, and the school district people were lukewarm to say the least and didn’t always have representatives attending collaborative meetings. Finally, after a few years of this the collaborative basically decided to institute and promote youth programs on their own outside the school district. So as you see, there were a variety of approaches, but overall it was impressive that these collaboratives found various ways to deal with their relationship with the school district.

There’s one lingering problem that some of the collaboratives articulated very often, which is that they purposefully did not want to focus on core instructional issues, because that was the turf of the school boards and the school superintendents. But at the same time the collaboratives are being judged to a large extent by how successful the school districts are in things like improving standardized test outcomes. So as one of our collaborative leaders put it, it’s like a donut hole. We’re providing all these wraparound services, all of this basic support. But if the core instruction is not being improved substantially we’re going to be left with an empty hole. So that’s one way of looking at what one of the continuing issues that collaboratives in many of these areas have to work on is.

4. How do cross-sector collaborations address issues of equity in their locales?

Carolyn Riehl

All of the collaborations wanted to reduce disparities in their locales, and some of them did engage in either formal or informal reflections and deeper analysis that took them to some of the longstanding structural inequities and patterns of racism and exclusion, in housing, employment, criminal justice, social services, and governance, as well as in access to education. These factors were openly acknowledged, but the initiatives tackled them in different ways. For some, the approach was more consistent with color blind efforts to reduce disparities in education, adding services that could benefit everyone on a surface level, but not really calling out some of the deeper issues.

Other programs took a more explicit approach and took steps to at least get people acknowledging and talking about the deeper issues. This messaging and conversation, and eventually in some cases some interventions, were sometimes more on the symbolic level but often substantive as well, really trying to address disparities. Most of the collaborations were begun primarily by involving local elites, mayors, school district officials, foundation leaders, social service agency heads, and so on. This was reasonable for gaining the legitimacy of these new initiatives and for acquiring resources, including finances, to get them off the ground. But as many of them have learned and acknowledged over the years of their implementation, it’s important to have grassroots community involvement when you’re trying to really understand and change the ways in which inequity is produced and sustained.

This remains an ongoing challenge. It’s sometimes very hard for initiatives that begin at an elite level to begin to bring in community members. We’re in the midst of some very challenging and potentially transformative times between the pandemic and the racial reckonings around the country, including a lot of activities in the cities that we studied, including Minneapolis, Portland, and Milwaukee. We would expect that these collaborations that were founded under the principle that they are flexible, nimble, inclusive, and that they stand somewhat outside the constraints of both bureaucracy and politics, to possibly step up and have a strong voice and a real presence in their communities, around responses to the issues we’re facing right now. Our fieldwork ended a few years ago, so we don’t want to make any false statements about how these initiatives have been responding, but in some random informal checkups, we’ve seen a little bit less of this, at least in the public face of the collaborations.

Again, the many statements about racial equity that you saw from businesses, from school systems, from non-profit organizations during the summer, sometimes took on the character of a performative nature, such as an obligatory statement, but those aren’t even present on the websites of some of the collaborations we examined. So it certainly may be that they’re addressing these issues and really in the midst of them. We do know of some initiatives that have really stepped up, especially around the pandemic and the closing of school to really ramp up and change the way they are helping school systems deliver education and make sure that the support services were getting to the children who needed them, but it remains to be seen what will happen next.

5. What implications and suggestions can be drawn for next steps?

Jeff Henig

We concluded that the goals presented by advocates of cross-sector collaboration and collective impact in particular are grander than what most local collaboratives are able to implement and promise, and are maybe more ambitious than they can actually muster. They’re engaged in many tangible activities, but those are constrained by available resources, by personnel, and the continuation of competing interests within the community. Overall, we concluded at least when we were done that the collective impact idea retains appeal, but it seems to function more effectively as a broad framework than as an explicit formula or prescriptive model for how to achieve and make impact through collaboration. We concluded also that collaboration efforts at times may serve better as a bulwark against unproductive intramural sniping among local actors and backsliding in tough times, rather than as a powerful driving force for comprehensive systemic change.

That said, we came away generally impressed by much of what we saw. The groups we studied were actively wrestling with ongoing challenges, and trying to find the right balance themselves between high expectations and realistic ones, adjusting some of their initial ideas and decisions about collaboration, governance, measurement, and funding, as they learn from experience about what works and what’s problematic in their local context. As they’ve been implemented, a lot of the current collaborations show promise for creating the new venue to bring in local partners who have historically not necessarily cooperated in the past, and even been in conflict.

Importantly, most collaboration seemed to have helped calm down the often contentious urban education politics in these communities and establish enough stability for partners to move forward. So for a number of reasons, we consider it wise to give this sector more time to mature, but they do face major challenges.

First, moving beyond supporting school systems to strengthening them. School systems have been under a lot of pressure in the last 20 years, first under a heavy accountability pressure from the nation and the states. Now, perhaps as that was easing up somewhat there is the new array of challenges presented by the pandemic. Ultimately, we do believe that success will require tackling direct instructional improvements, and so far that’s something that’s been done in only a limited way.

Secondly, as we went around in these communities, we heard some critical voices expressing frustration with what they considered to be the dominance of business and civic leaders to the exclusion of more marginalized groups. Most of the local collaboratives and the national leaders to their credit have acknowledged this as a weak spot. But our work predated the national focus on systemic racism as catalyzed by Black Lives Matter, as well as the backlash against the demonstrations as voiced and led by President Trump, and exactly how that will play out in these local arenas we’re not sure, but we suspect that there will be continued challenges for even well-intentioned efforts to overcome skepticism and resistance, both at the elite and the local level.

Third, philanthropic support has been important, but foundations often shift the foci of their enthusiasm and the spigots of foundation dollars can close without substantial alternative sources of funding being developed in their place. There can be some very real challenges, and that leads us to a fourth point, which is that most of the collaborations have been wary about engaging in direct advocacy for policy change or high pressure advocacy for greater and more direct funding for their efforts. But more sustainable spending on cross-sector collaboration probably is important, but it puts these collaborations in a new arena. It puts them in an arena and a political landscape that’s densely populated with readily mobilizable, well-connected interest groups that are oriented around protecting their existing resource flows.

So we do anticipate that the collaborations may find a greater need to push for public funding to institutionalize their efforts, but they’ll need political muscle to do that, not simply good data that supports their claims of impact. Finally, I’ll end on this and this may be things that I think that we’d love to hear some of your views on, but there’s the question of how sharp changes at the political and policy environment at the national level will trickle down to the local level, and how the collaborations will adjust. That includes things we’ve already alluded to, the Black Lives Matters protests, the pandemic.

We all share some uncertainty about what’s coming in the next two, three weeks in terms of national elections. Those kinds of national forces create powerful winds, and we’re not sure whether all or even most of the local collaborations we studied have deep enough roots necessarily to withstand the buffeting, although we’re hopeful that they can, and we’re interested in hearing what you all think about that.