First 10 Blog

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.