Insights from Cross-City Collaborations to Support Young People

by Ally Margolis, Every Hour Counts

Carolyn Riehl of Teachers College, Columbia University, provides insights on key findings from Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education.

As the saying goes, “collaboration is key.” This rings especially true for local leaders, tasked with addressing the numerous challenges in their communities, among them clearing the roadblocks necessary for young people to succeed.

Cross-sector collaborations are one approach decision-makers can take to help ensure young people have equitable access to quality learning opportunities. These partnerships provide an opportunity for leaders from all walks — philanthropy, government, school district, nonprofit and community organizations — to come together in crafting solutions to problems often thought of as too big for any one industry, department or organization to solve.

If officials are going to successfully pull off a collective impact effort, however, they’ll need to have “a compelling, widely shared understanding about the need for collaboration and a conviction that collaboration can really make a difference,” says Carolyn Riehl of Teachers College, Columbia University, senior author of Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education.

Oakland Fullservice Community Schools- Photo Credit: Hasain Rasheed Photography.

In an interview, Carolyn Riehl provided us with her insights from the case studies and what it takes to establish a successful cross-sector collaboration.

Cross-sector collaboration is hard work! Based on your research, what essential ingredient is needed for a collaboration to be sustainable for the long-term?

It’s difficult to identify a single ingredient that would ensure a collaboration’s sustainability, because many factors need to be in play. These include adequate and stable funding, visible and engaging leaders and champions for the effort, competent management, and a good system for governance and decision-making across multiple participants. All of that matters.

But none of it would make much difference if there weren’t a compelling, widely shared understanding about the need for collaboration and a conviction that collaboration can really make a difference. This sense of purpose probably has to be derived from a strong set of core values and beliefs about the importance and viability of the goals being sought and then from a realistic theory of action that recognizes the complexity of the challenge and the need for equally complex solutions. Collaboration is difficult, costly, and time-consuming; it won’t seem worth doing unless there’s a recognition that there are no other avenues to success without it.

Using data effectively is no easy feat. What sorts of challenges do collaborations encounter?

We do live in a time when data use seems essential. It’s hard for a cross-sector collaboration to obtain, interpret, and act upon data. Multiple service agencies in the collaboration might have very different approaches to collecting information on their clients’ backgrounds, needs, service participation, and outcomes. Population-level data on things like children’s immunizations or third grade test scores might come from centralized government sources that are missing data or that have privacy restrictions on data sharing. Demonstrating causal links among particular student needs, interventions, and outcomes may be impossible if the thread of data running across all of those elements is broken. Even when collaboration partners agree on a grand, unifying data strategy, creating an all-purpose, accurate, and timely data system is a huge task.

What conditions do you think should be established in order to overcome these roadblocks? What suggestions do you have for collaborations looking to gather and use data in ways that truly drive continuous improvement?

One way around these problems is to pursue a small set of high-level indicators but to be transparent about their limitations. Knowing the changes in a city’s high school graduation rate may offer some assurance that a collaboration is having success, but says little about how or why that success is happening. To answer those questions, a collaboration might design smaller feedback loops with timely, detailed information. For example, what does an after-school program know about the students it serves, how frequently they come to the program, and whether they attend school more frequently or pass more courses as a result? Understanding these patterns on a smaller scale can help a collaboration make decisions about its overall strategies.

Collaborations are advised to avoid over-promising. Many collaborations we studied retreated from the ambitious target dates and outcome goals they set for themselves, and they began to report evidence of steady progress instead. It’s important to have goals and be accountable for meeting them. But the problems collaborations are meant to solve were not created overnight, and the solutions won’t come quickly either.

What surprised you the most through your research?

In our field study we were often surprised by the delicate relationships between the collaborations and their local school systems. When local educational performance was lower than desired, collaborations sprang up, not wanting merely to blame the school systems, but hoping to help. Many seemed reluctant to intervene in the school systems’ core “business” of instruction, and instead offered to help students and schools in other ways, especially by providing health and social service supports.

School systems were grateful for this assistance, but often didn’t have fiscal resources to contribute to the collaboration and sometimes wanted to maintain boundaries, at least until trust grew. On the other hand, cross-sector collaboration sometimes reduced political tensions among board members, teachers and administrators, and parents and community members who were often present when districts were underperforming, making it more possible for the school system to focus on making core improvements. And in some cases, collaborations worked much more closely with school districts, helping them examine their results and pilot new approaches.

The fact that these patterns varied from place to place made us aware of both the risks and benefits of collaboration to all sides. Still, it seems likely that overall, local systems of education will have to be strengthened if population-level gains in educational outcomes are to be achieved. Supportive collaborations can help, but they can’t do it all.

For practical advice on effectively gathering data to improve decision making, don’t miss Putting Data to Work for Young People: A Ten-Step Guide for Expanded Learning Intermediaries. Developed with support from The Wallace Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the guide offers practical advice on gathering and working with data to improve decision making.

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