Jeff Edmondson is uniting local leaders within education, government, and the philanthropic community behind a common vision and measurable set of goals, and supplying them with the tools, infrastructure, and peer community they need to improve educational outcomes from cradle-to-career.
The New Idea
Jeff is identifying the key elements required to build civic infrastructure capable of supporting children from cradle-to-career, and is mobilizing a powerful network across the country to put those elements into practice. Rather than institute a single program, he is connecting the many different players addressing education challenges at the local level—including foundations and government funding agencies, nonprofit service providers, and educators—through a framework grounded in the best practices for collective impact. What’s more, Jeff has made collective impact in education work at scale by clearly codifying what does and does not work, creating a shared metrics system from which local partners can track students across all educational levels, and convening a vibrant community of practice capable of sharing lessons learned.
By working hand-in-hand with the funding community, focusing on comprehensive data gathering, and equipping communities with the tools they need to identify shared goals and feasible action plans among like providers, Strive ensures that resources are redirected toward approaches that work. Simple and easily adaptable, the process can be used to meet local needs: Put concerned people in a room, agree upon statistically definable goals, and then coordinate action and spend the dollars to hit the targets. Jeff is working to scale their approach by establishing powerful proof points in cities and towns across the country, and sharing the lessons learned through a combination of field-building activities and outreach efforts. Despite the recession and budget cuts of recent years, Strive has seen dramatic results: in Cincinnati, for example, 34 of the 53 success indicators showed positive trends over the last six years, affecting everything from high school graduation rates to fourth-grade reading and math scores, to the number of preschool children prepared for kindergarten. And in less than two years since the launch of the national network, more than 120 cities have asked to join. As a result, what began as a partnership in Cincinnati, OH has now grown to include fifteen cradle-to-career initiatives in cities ranging from Oakland to Richmond, Portland, Houston, and Boston, and more than fifty member sites actively pursuing the Strive framework.
The chronic underperformance of the U.S. education system is widely acknowledged: each year, more than one million secondary school students dropout, and those who go on to college often lack the social skills and academic foundation they need to succeed. While we have plenty of examples of teachers, schools, and programs that perform against the odds, those success stories—and the practices they entail—typically fail to permeate throughout the system as a whole. This remains true despite billions of dollars in philanthropic investments, and a steady stream of new organizations and new approaches proclaiming they alone hold the key to improved performance. In other words, we have become program rich and system poor.
While the last few years have seen a surge in demand for data and accountability, there have been few attempts to build a seamless data system to track children throughout their development. In most cities, education is funded program-by-program, and service-providers—be they district-level government employees or individual nonprofit agencies—have access only to the data within their immediate sphere of influence. The result is that problems are solved in a piecemeal fashion: early childhood is treated separately from primary education; what is taught in high school does not mirror what colleges demand; and after-school programs and service providers act independently of one another and of the schools in which they often work. While we can measure how a child fares in one particular program or grade level, we find it difficult to track long-term progress, and proven practices have little opportunity to scale.
Without a concerted effort to improve the entire education continuum at once, improvements in one area—say, through better afterschool programs—often achieve only limited lasting impact. It has thus become a popular refrain among teachers, administrators, and service providers to blame poor performance on the myriad factors outside of a teacher or program’s control, leading to a perpetual state of paralysis.
Attempts to correct such widely acknowledged challenges have been met with mixed results. While the citizen sector is saturated with partnerships and collaborative networks, few achieve the full promise of collective impact. Even when the necessary stakeholders are at the table and share a set of common aims, the inherent lack of accountability mechanisms often leads to a disconnect between talk and action.
The rare exceptions have been confined to case studies and media accolades, but fail to adapt to new challenges and new environments. Lacking an established set of procedures and proven practices, we are left to assume that success stories are the product of serendipitous timing and circumstance: the coming together of the right people at the right time in conditions that were unique to that particular context.
In 2006, district officials and other local leaders in Cincinnati came together for a Town Hall-style meeting. In the midst of a discussion about a new college readiness program designed to improve access for low-income students, the county coroner stood up and said, “as long as we look at programs and not systems, we’re going nowhere. And what’s more, I’m going to have dead kids on my table.” And so Strive was born, beginning as a pilot partnership spanning three school districts in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. With executive leadership from the head of the University of Cincinnati and the local school board, as well as the United Way, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and the CEO of Proctor & Gamble, Strive set out to improve educational outcomes throughout the region, not by scaling programs and starting new initiatives, but instead by scaling practices, and building stronger “civic infrastructure.”
Through extensive trial-and-error, Jeff developed a four-pronged process to channel that momentum into results: establishing a common vision and set of aims, creating a rigorous data system to track progress and redirect resources toward what works, uniting partners behind a clear accountability structure, and finally securing ongoing investment and sustainability. The impact was profound: the region has seen a 13-percentage point shift in the number of outcomes trending positively, from 68 to 81 percent, in the last two years alone, including a 9 percent increase in kindergarten readiness over four years across the three impacted cities of Cincinnati, Newport, and Covington.
Jeff recognized that what had begun in Cincinnati as a purely local undertaking represented a fundamental shift in how we meet student needs. Besieged by demands from cities throughout the country looking to follow the Cincinnati example, he launched a dual strategy to scale the effort: (i) establishing a set of proof points in a wide-range of cities across the country, and (ii) growing the field and disseminating standards of practice.
In 2009, Jeff launched the Network, beginning with four partnership sites in Portland, Houston, Richmond, and California’s East Bay. Having led the work at the local level, Jeff understood that each partner would need an experienced guide to help with real-time problem-solving, a community with whom they could share practices, and a backbone organization that could meet certain needs that cut across the Network. He and the national team thus took on three core functions: (i) codifying what works (ii) offering tailored strategic assistance from six months to three years,and (iii) convening a wider community of practice.
Prospective partner sites begin by submitting a Site Readiness Assessment, helping them to identify existing assets and critical gaps that need to be filled. To be considered, partners must first identify an anchor entity. The anchor becomes the primary point of contact between the Network and local partners. While it is typically the mayor, superintendent, or the head of a community foundation who asks to join the Network, they are encouraged to identify a separate anchor institution to staff the initiative, in order to increase community buy-in. Anchors must agree to fund—often with the help of local community foundations, corporate partners, and would-be members of the network—permanent positions to oversee the partnership: typically a project manager, data analyst, and community organizer. Partners are then assessed according to their levels of preparedness and proven commitment, and the likelihood of their meeting a set of specific milestones.
Jeff began by deconstructing the Network’s initial successes, with the goal of codifying—through simple, accessible terms and materials—what works. He found that through careful documentation, one-to-one support, and peer-to-peer learning across the Network, partnering communities could adapt the framework to their unique circumstances.
To establish a shared community vision, representatives from key sectors with a stake in education—ranging from district-level decision-makers, and civic and community leaders from the philanthropic, business, and citizen sectors—begin by looking at the particular challenges and opportunities highlighted through the Site Readiness Assessment. Rather than dictate the terms or expectations, Jeff and his team act as coaches, leaving it to each member body to identify its own unique goals.
Next, member communities work to identify key metrics and success indicators, ensuring that all decisions are evidence-based, and therefore bereft of the politics that often stymie progress. Jeff realized that meeting that vision depended on creating a shared metrics system. By taking a uniform snapshot of student performance and measuring their results over time, communities are able to identify where to focus their energy; what produces results; and which practices need to be expanded in order to build upon those successes.
Strive then works closely with each anchor institution to help them develop accountability structures, and other mechanisms designed to help translate agreements into action. While Strive has developed a host of recommended practices, how members choose to organize themselves is entirely up to them. In Cincinnati, for example, participants have broken themselves into fifteen Student Success Networks (SSNs) by type of activity, such as early childhood education or tutoring, who meet for two hours every two weeks to share progress and assess their performance against the agreed upon indicators, with the goal of learning from one another and aligning their respective efforts to advance one another’s work. Once a month, a dozen local leaders with decision-making authority, including the mayor, three superintendents, and local corporate and community foundation executives, meet to review and discuss the data and reported findings from the various SSNs. Together, they formulate a hypothesis around potential solutions, vote on it, and put it into practice.
The fourth and final pillar of the framework concerns investment and sustainability. The active involvement of funders and the philanthropic community serves a dual purpose, holding participating organizations accountable, and ensuring that agreed upon priorities are matched to available resources. Beyond the staffing support provided at the outset of the partnership, several cities have taken steps to institutionalize the Strive approach through changes to policy, grant funding, and local governing boards. In Portland, the exiting mayor disbanded several existing education councils, which often worked at cross-purposes, replacing them with just one permanent seat with All Hands Raised, the local cradle-to-career network. In Washington, D.C., an Executive Order established a permanent “partnership table” within the mayor’s office to shepherd the work, and a number of participating foundations in various cities have aligned their education portfolios with the Strive goals and metrics.
By capturing who is working and where, and what resources currently exist to meet established needs, partner sites have been able to reduce redundancy and identify underutilized resources. By reviewing college access data and surveying existing resources, for example, members of the Strive team in Seattle—including the Chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges, local superintendents, and representatives from the area’s major education foundations—uncovered a scholarship that no one was applying for. Influential figures, ranging from local ministers to program leaders at the YMCA, began highlighting it to area students and members of their network. As a result, thousands of students in the region were awarded the scholarship the following year, vastly exceeding the Network’s targets. Best practices can scale with little to no new investment, and existing resources can be quickly redirected toward higher-impact ends.
Jeff realized that merely codifying these practices was not enough, however. Each cradle-to-career community is thus assigned a coach from the national office, who provides ongoing strategic assistance and trouble-shooting. The close association between the headquarters and the partner sites means that lessons learned quickly permeate the entire network.
Finally, Jeff and the team are working to convene a strong community of practice among member sites, in order to outsource much of the coaching function to those on the ground, and to avoid becoming a bottleneck themselves. He recently secured funding for a partnership with TimeBanks, to act as a web portal for partner sites. In addition to supplying open access to tools and resources, the platform is meant to incentivize peer learning: in the future, leading members who advise struggling cities, participate in Network-wide taskforces, or mentor peers in similar rolls across different cities will earn revenue for their contributions.
Just as best-practice sharing within each partner site depends on having a shared metrics system, so, too, does sharing best practices across partner sites. In the Fall of 2011, participating cities came together to share learnings, and thus agreed on five common metrics that would make sense for everyone involved: (i) kindergarten readiness (ii) third grade reading (iii) eighth grade math (iv) high school graduation and (v) college completion and certification. Moreover, recognizing that academic standards alone do not predict career readiness, Jeff has established a national working group comprised of leaders from across the Network, who together have set out to establish a common set of social and emotional learning standards. By identifying measurable indicators, Jeff aims to not only build a definitive case for the central role of empathy throughout all educational levels, but to pinpoint the practices that achieve results.
Jeff is now turning his attention to growing the field, and to spreading practices among the growing number of influential players interested in collective impact. Each pilot site acts as a laboratory, through which best practices feed into the Network, and are disseminated out. Those lessons are then carefully codified and disseminated through a combination of online tools and trainings, conferences and inter-Network gatherings, white papers, and media coverage.
Jeff aims to create twenty-five proof points by 2015, in order to reach a tipping point. To date, more than 120 sites nationally have reached out to the Network with requests to join. Jeff and his team are working hand-in-hand with fifteen partner cities ranging from Milwaukee to Boston, Boise, and Dallas. Of the participating cities, Jeff aims to have at least ten meet critical milestones in half the time of the original pilot sites, and to ensure that ten of the twenty-five leading demonstration sites realize consistent and sustained improvements in the number of critical student outcomes trending positively over time.
Jeff and the team recently secured changes to Race to the Top language, tying the disbursement of funds to the criteria Strive uses to identify cradle-to-career communities, opening the doors to millions of dollars in new funding for participating communities. By leveraging policy changes and peer-to-peer learning within the Network, he has thus found a way to deepen impact without building a vast intermediary organization.
Already, other sites are witnessing similar improvements among key education indicators to those seen in Cincinnati. Of perhaps greater importance, however, are the changes in civic infrastructure, as partners build trust and working relationships, learning to align interests, and to work toward long-term change in place of the short-term. Jeff is currently exploring a range of measures to assess the strength of that infrastructure, and the spread of Strive practices as a whole. The result carries widespread repercussions for how local leaders address social and economic challenges at-large.
Jeff was raised in a split household, living primarily with his mother and stepfather—a preacher—who together instilled in him a life-long commitment to service, an abiding awareness of social inequity, and our responsibility to one another. Yet Jeff was equally inspired by the example set by his father, a successful businessman, whose work ethic and relentless pursuit of results produced in Jeff a strong personal drive.
It was just after college, while stationed in Gabon as part of the Peace Corps, that Jeff saw firsthand the dangers of imposed solutions, and of well-intentioned theory when divorced from local realities. His project concerned fish-farming: a much needed intervention in neighboring Congo, where overpopulation had led to widespread undernourishment, and the need for better protein sources. At the time, however, Gabon was comprised of 80 percent rainforest: if you wanted fish, all you had to do was to put a trap in the water, and you would catch it. Knowing little about the two countries outside of their proximity, a program administrator in D.C. assumed the same solutions would apply to both contexts. Rather than attempt to convince the community of a service they did not need, Jeff stayed an extra year and a half to turn the fish-farming program into an animal husbandry program: one that was actually needed. To this day, the experience serves as a continuing reminder that unless you deeply understand the problem, you cannot understand the potential solutions.
Upon his return, he worked in Washington, D.C.’s largest public high school, managing the interface between the school and resources within the community. The need for effective data was reinforced there as well. On one occasion, he discovered that 50 programs were working in the school on a single day each week. When asked how many students they served, the programs claimed to serve more children than attended the school. The source behind these claims was not deliberate deception, but rather an absence of accurate data files on their students. What was more, Jeff realized that grant requirements, rather than student need, shaped services.
Subsequent work in both public policy and philanthropy convinced Jeff that lasting change lay not in the hands of one sector or another, but in leveraging each of their respective strengths. It was these convictions that led him to KnowledgeWorks, an out-of-the-box foundation known for its focus on systems-change and civic capacity building rather than individual program investments, which became the first anchor for the Network.