Building a Citywide Birth—3rd System: One City’s Plan

We are aware that building a coherent system is more time consuming and less flashy than just adding more slots or more dollars to an existing system. But we have an opportunity to … build a system that coherently knits together our existing resources and thoughtfully brings in new resources to meet the needs of our youngest residents.
–Richard Rossi, City Manager, Cambridge, Massachusetts

This is about as important as it gets, frankly. Achievement gaps do not begin in the fifth grade or the third grade. They begin much earlier. The right way to reduce and eventually eliminate achievement gaps is to start early…I believe whole-heartedly that with this effort to get there, we can make that difference. It is about coherence. The adults have to come together.
–Jeff Young, Superintendent of Schools, Cambridge, MA, speaking to a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee

On November 16, the City Council and School Committee in Cambridge, MA met to review an ambitious set of recommendations to develop a citywide Birth through Third Grade (Birth—3rd) system.  The recommendations were presented by the City Manager, the Superintendent, and the city’s Early Childhood Task Force with the aim of expanding access to early childhood services and improving quality across the organizations that serve young children and their families. These recommendations are intended to guide a significant financial investment the city will make in improving Birth—3rd services, projected at $1.3 million in the first year, $2.6 million in the second year, and potentially increasing further in subsequent years. Continue reading “Building a Citywide Birth—3rd System: One City’s Plan”

“You Are on the Cusp of a Huge Movement”

So exclaimed Libby Doggett, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning at the US Department of Education. Doggett discussed the Birth—3rd movement at the recent District Leadership Summit in Chicago organized by the Ounce of Prevention Fund. She told the audience of district leaders that we are at “unique moment in time” and “can finally realize the promise of early learning” through the broader frame of the Birth—3rd approach. Diana Rauner, the President of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, agreed with Doggett, saying, “We are at the beginning of something big here, a new normal, a new vision for educational attainment, and a new vision for collaboration.” Rauner shared the experience of the Birth-to-College Collaborative, a partnership between the Educare early learning program and the University of Chicago Charter School. Saying it took two years to “put our weapons down,” Rauner emphasized the importance of developing “a shared goal, a shared language, shared identity, and a shared vision for our kids.” Rauner suggested we need to “be able to present an aligned vision of parent engagement throughout the continuum.” In my post on the Birth-to-College Collaborative’s Toolkit, I mentioned how the  Collaborative had created a Parent Advisory Committee to help guide their work, and family engagement comes through as a strong priority throughout the Toolkit.

Chicago’s Birth-to-College Collaborative

The Ounce of Prevention Fund (“the Ounce”) has organized a Leadership Summit on the role of districts in Birth through 3rd Grade efforts in Chicago this week. More on the Summit to come, but as a start I’d like to highlight some of the recommendations found in the Ounce’s Birth-to-College Collaborative Toolkit, a compendium of guidance documents and tools that communities implementing Birth–3rd initiatives will find very useful.

The materials in the toolkit are an outgrowth of Chicago’s Birth-to-College Collaborative, a partnership spearheaded by Educare and the University of Chicago Charter School. Educare is a renowned birth-to-five program operated by the Ounce that serves low-income children and whose success in improving child outcomes has helped fuel the Birth–3rd movement. (See David Kirp’s The Sandbox Investment.)

By way of introducing the Toolkit, here are few highlights that resonate with and reinforce many of the themes that we have explored on the Learning Hub.

  • First, note the helpful language the Collaborative uses to describe the Birth-to-College model: “a model of public education that (1) begins at birth and extends through college graduation, (2) is characterized by evidence-based, high-quality experiences and supports for students and their families, (3) is grounded in trusting relationships and communication among all adults who share responsibility for students’ learning and development, and (4) is aligned so that each experience has a cumulative effect—ideally, each coherently contributes to the next by sustaining and building upon the growth and learning that comes before. Therefore, birth-to-college (BTC) alignment refers to the coherent set of educational experiences and supports for students, families and the professionals and organizations that serve them that begins at birth and continues through college completion.”
  • And here is an idea for all Birth–3rd Partnerships: the Collaborative has established a Parent Advisory Committee that helps assess family needs, provides feedback to family engagement staff, and provides advisory support to the Collaborative’s various committees.
  • As a result of the partnership with the two PreK-5 campuses of the University of Chicago Charter School, Educare has begun using the STEP literacy assessment used by the Charter School. The school’s literacy coordinators helped train Educare staff in the use of the tool. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, the author of Driven by Data and Great Habits, Great Readers, is also a fan of the STEP assessment.
  • The implementation guides include helpful questions for “Defining Your Educational Context”  and advise that partnerships, “take stock of pre-existing structures and processes.” As the guidance says, “Determine how what you are trying to build can honor, support, and inform systems that are already in place, especially around staff professional collaboration and continuous improvement. It is important to note that this is not a ‘new’ initiative. Rather, it is about advancing and aligning the work of teaching children and supporting and engaging families.”
  • Finally, encourage “cross-pollination“: “Consider cultivating strategies that will encourage cross-pollination of beliefs, approaches, and practices that could readily lend themselves to potential “buckets” for alignment, with the added benefit of developing mutual respect and understanding.” Ideas include “observations of classrooms, instructional approaches, and/or family events, as well as opportunities for staff to talk with one another.”

See this Toolbox for a set of practical alignment tools.The Birth-to-College Collaborative is developing a “bottom-up” model of collaboration across three schools structured around six professional learning communities. The thoughtful guidance and documentation the Collaborative is producing provides a fresh perspective on the work of Birth–3rd partnerships.

Chicago Summit on the District Role in Birth–3rd Efforts

The Ounce of Prevention Fund is holding a summit on March 25-26, Excellence in the Early Grades: District Leadership SummitSenior district leaders (e.g., superintendents, assistant superintendents, and directors of instruction) are invited to attend. Registration, accommodations, and meals are provided free of charge. Libby Doggett and Steve Tozer will present as keynote speakers. I’ll be leading a session with a excellent roster of panelists on Developing Community Partnerships to Support Alignment. Other breakout sessions will cover, among other topics, Allocating Resources to Achieve Your Vision, Kindergarten as a Critical Link, and Supporting Effective Teaching through Instructional Leadership.

Check out the agenda at the link above and share with district leaders in your area!

Aligning for Success

To sustain student gains from high-quality early childhood programs, research shows that we must invest in aligning children’s educational experiences through 3rd grade to truly close the achievement gap before it starts.

Hosted in partnership with the Urban Education Institute, Excellence in the Early Grades will highlight innovative alignment models and district-level policy and practice designed to achieve better student outcomes. With in-depth seminars and opportunities to network with other committed local leaders, attendees will leave with inspiring new ideas for approaching this critical work in their own district. The Summit will bring together district education leaders, including superintendents, assistant superintendents and school board members.

The District Leadership Summit is an outgrowth of the Birth-to-College Collaborative funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, and the Foundation for Child Development.

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others?

Are some teams “smarter” than others? Researchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon say yes. They have found three characteristics that distinguish smarter teams. You may be surprised by the results, which make a strong case for well-structured, interactive meetings guided by discussion protocols that create a level playing field for rich conversations.

“Collective Seeing, Learning, and Doing”

"Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact," p. 2.
“Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact,” p. 2.

I have occasionally referred to the Collective Impact Model, a powerful approach cross-sector collaboration used by many communities across the country, including Pittsfield. The approach is based on the five conditions shown in the graphic above. The Collective Impact Forum has recently shared a great collection of resources in its Top Reads and Resources for 2014. In particular I recommend Committing to Collective Impact: From Vision to Implementation and Collective Insights on Collective Impact, the second and third items on the list. Also, see the video about Somerville’s Collective Impact initiative, Shape Up Somerville, under Top Videos.

The following passages from “Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact” (in the Collective Insights document) reinforce the connections between relationships, capacity, and innovation that I described in October. Note the joint emphasis on evidence and relationships and on “collective seeing, learning, and doing.”

We have seen that data and evidence are critical inputs for collective impact efforts, but we must not underestimate the power of relationships. Lack of personal relationships, as well as the presence of strong egos and difficult historical interactions, can impede collective impact efforts. Collective impact practitioners must invest time in building strong interpersonal relationships and trust, which enable collective visioning and learning. …Collective impact can succeed only when the process attends to both the use of evidence and the strengthening of relationships. …

We believe that a critical mindset shift is needed: Collective impact practitioners must recognize that the power of collective impact comes from enabling “collective seeing, learning, and doing,” rather than following a linear plan. The structures that collective impact efforts create enable people to come together regularly to look at data and learn from one another, to understand what is working and what is not. Such interaction leads partners to adjust their actions, “doubling down” on effective strategies and allowing new solutions to emerge.

New Article Collections Page

I’ve gathered together a number of articles and case studies on a new Feature Articles page. And see this week’s Marshall Memo, a weekly digest of education news for principals and other education leaders, for a summary of the Primary Years Agenda article.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Five Practical Lessons about Birth–3rd Partnerships: Feedback Requested

A chief benefit of blogs is the interactive dialogue they can support. With the Birth–3rd Learning Hub, I have an opportunity to test ideas with people who are deeply involved in doing Birth–3rd work. A few weeks ago I posted a number of “lessons” based on the work thus far, giving examples of each to illustrate the central take-away. Here is a summary of these five take-aways:

  1. Community- and Relationship-Building are Necessary but not Sufficient
  2. Attending to the Imbalance of Power Requires Care
  3. Partnerships Need a “Backbone”
  4. Birth—3rd Improvement Requires District Early Childhood Capacity
  5. An Important Balance: Strategy with an Eye towards Capacity-Building

I’m very interested in learning about any experiences you have had that either support or challenge any of the points I make in this post. I invite you to share them via the comment section below. I’ll draw on your feedback in future posts. If you prefer to communicate with me directly, just put “private” in your comment, and I won’t make it public. Or email jacobsondl at Thanks for your help.

What We’re Learning  

In last week’s post I showed how the work of Massachusetts’ Birth—3rd partnerships is “spilling over” in unexpected and promising ways due to the creation of new social and institutional relationships. These spillovers illustrate how the new relationships that partnerships create can lead to new strategies and build capacity for ongoing improvement.  These developments are important because they are early evidence of the kinds of change that communities must become adept at in order to be more successful in addressing the intractable challenges of raising the achievement of low-income children. They signal that Birth—3rd partnerships can develop new ideas, new practices, and more effective ways of doing the work of improving early education and care.

The spillovers seen in Massachusetts Birth—3rd partnerships thus far are positive signs of progress that are consistent with the research on social capital and cross-sector collaboration. This research highlights the importance of building local and regional capacity through partnerships and networks in order to improve and innovate—to learn in systematic ways.

As Birth—3rd policy developments continue to gain momentum, and as Birth—3rd community partnerships continue to expand, it makes sense to consider several practical implications regarding the dual objectives of implementing effective strategies, on the one hand, and partnership development, on the other.

Community- and Relationship-Building are Necessary but not Sufficient
The study of Chicago elementary schools I mentioned last week found that jump-starting collaboration can be challenging. Those schools that had achieved high levels of social capital had often begun their work with low-risk collaboration that led to “early wins.” Early action and early wins build initial stores of trust, which partnerships draw on in subsequent projects, which further build trusting relationships in a potentially virtuous circle. Building healthy partnerships and implementing effective strategy are interwoven and mutually-reinforcing.

Work in Massachusetts is beginning to illustrate the dynamics of this kind of virtuous circle in action.  Public schools and community-based preschools in Lowell had a strong relationship through its Early Childhood Advisory Council, which spawned its Birth-3rd Leadership Alignment Team and a neighborhood strategy, which it turn led to a community-wide school readiness agenda. In Boston, community-based preschools were not using a transition form the district had designed. The district and the community-based providers built trust and relationships through the Boston K1DS Directors Group, and then the Directors Group became an important sounding board for Boston’s emerging universal pre-kindergarten initiative.

The idea of early wins highlights the importance of getting work done—accomplishing something. Community-building without action will try people’s patience, as the parking lot conversations after meetings readily attest. Former superintendent Jerry Weast of Montgomery County makes a similar point regarding whether to try to change beliefs first or behaviors first:

I thought I would enter the change process through the culture door and then engage everyone in creating systems and structures that would support the culture. But I couldn’t get traction, so we started to build the systems anyway, and it seemed that the culture started to shift as people saw the changes worked for kids.
–Jerry Weast as quoted in Six Lessons for Pursuing Excellence and Equity at Scale

Attending to the Imbalance of Power Requires Care
A fundamental challenge in building healthy early education collaboratives revolves around the asymmetrical nature of the district—community-based preschool power dynamic. Districts are the large institutional educational players in their communities. Their teaching staffs tend to be more highly paid have higher educational credentials. Further, while the preschool districts offer is only for the length of the school day and does not include summers (in contrast to community-based providers), many if not all of the seats they offer to families are free.

In both Somerville and Springfield, leaders have been sensitive to these power dynamics and have taken care to design collaborations between community-based and district teachers, including cross-site visits and joint professional development that are positive and respectful. In both cases, these on-the-ground collaborations have created banks of good will that are supporting more ambitious collaboration in both communities.

Preschool leaders frequently acknowledge the power imbalance between them and districts. They nonetheless emphasize that they are eager to learn more about district initiatives in the early grades that will impact them, share information about rising kindergartners, participate in shared professional development, and in effect, be included in the larger system. In some cases, however, initial collaboration efforts have foundered when attention to establishing a climate of mutual respect and joint commitment has not been adequate.

Partnerships Need a “Backbone”
Massachusetts’ experience implementing cross-sector Birth—3rd partnerships thus far strongly suggests the need for an organization to assume the role of convener and organizer in order to keep activities moving forward and coordinate and link initiatives across agencies. In Massachusetts, some partnerships are led by districts, some by large community-based preschools or preschool associations, and one by the local United Way (Pittsfield). The well-known Birth—3rd Evaluation and Planning Framework by Kristie Kauerz and Julia Coffman refers to this role as “Resources for Cross-sector Work,” a category that includes governance structures, strategic plans, and blended funding resources. Another resource that is helpful for understanding the role and function of this central convening organization is found in the notion of a backbone organization. Backbone organizational support is one of five conditions that form the Collective Impact Model, a model of community-wide collaboration that is used in several Massachusetts cities and around the country (for more information, see this article and this forum).

The developers of the collective impact model articulate the rationale for backbone organizations saying:

Coordinating large groups in a collective impact initiative takes time and resources, and too often, the expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails.
Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work

They suggest that backbone organizations perform six functions: providing strategic direction, facilitating dialogue, managing data collection and analysis, handling communications, coordinating community outreach, and mobilizing funding.

Based on their experience working with many communities, and echoing the experience of Birth—3rd Partnerships in Massachusetts, the developers of the collective impact model suggest that effectively playing the role of backbone organization requires that organizations avoid leadership approaches that are either too top-down, on the one hand, or too laissez-faire (e.g., purely facilitative) on the other. Partnerships need a deliberate approach to leadership that requires balance and finesse:

Backbone organizations must maintain a delicate balance between the strong leadership needed to keep all parties together and the invisible “behind the scenes” role that lets the other stakeholders own the initiative’s success.
Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work

Birth—3rd Improvement Requires District Early Childhood Capacity
Regardless which organization (or organizations) serves as the backbone organization, it is clear that improving learning and care along the full Birth—3rd continuum, including PreK—3rd in district classrooms, requires that school districts develop sufficient early childhood expertise and capacity. This capacity includes staff who can support district teachers in the early grades and engage with the community-based providers as well.

Jason Sachs, the director of Early Childhood for the Boston Public Schools, emphasizes the critical role that Boston’s substantial early childhood coaching staff has played in supporting the implementation of Boston’s successful prekindergarten model, both in district and community-based classrooms. Likewise, the Lowell Public Schools is known for its strong early childhood program. As in other Birth—3rd Partnerships, Lowell is using state grant funds to expand its early childhood capacity through the extensive use of an additional coach as well as strategic and technical assistance support from a consulting organization, Early Childhood Associates.

In Somerville, political momentum in support of expanded early childhood services has grown in tandem with the on-the-ground work of its Birth—3rd partnership. As the partnership piloted collaborative professional development and coaching activities, the city committed to a universal kindergarten readiness plan. As a result, the district has expanded its professional development and coaching services to community-based providers by hiring a senior Early Childhood Director and an additional coach who will support community-based preschools.

An Important Balance: Strategy with an Eye towards Capacity-Building
We have seen in Massachusetts early evidence of better relationships, more trust, changing culture, and unplanned and even innovative strategies. These developments in Massachusetts are in line with the educational experience of Ontario, Canada, Montgomery County, MD, and high-performing countries. Partnerships characterized by high degrees of social trust and strong personal and institutional relationships are more likely to build the capacity and expertise required to continuously improve and innovate. As we’ve seen, community-building requires a focus on action—building relationships and changing hearts and minds through the work. The question then arises how we can best exploit these new institutions to take advantage of improved social capital. The challenge is thus to have two goals in mind: implementing change in the near term and building relationships and capacity over time. In addition to implementing good strategies, assessing them, and adjusting in a process of continuous improvement, are we also attending to the importance of social capital and relational trust in ways that build local expertise and capacity, generate new ideas, and lead to innovative work?

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.