How can cross-sector partnerships improve educational outcomes?

The Opportunity

It is evident that worsening income disparities have led to educational inequality, and vice versa, in many U.S. cities. One significant impact is that students from low-income communities are leaving primary schooling unprepared for high school, and in turn are not receiving the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in college. To address these challenges, many communities have sought to improve youth outcomes through piecemeal reforms and siloed programs – an approach that has not yielded the desired improvements.

“We believe communities can improve education outcomes through a disciplined and rigorous collective impact approach that uses data to identify and lift up what works.”

Jeff Edmondson, Managing Director, StriveTogether

The Response

As an antidote to the shortcomings of this siloed approach, many communities have begun to realize that a more holistic strategy – focusing on civic infrastructure rather than individual programs – can have a measurable effect on education outcomes. In addition, community leaders are viewing education as a lifelong experience that begins well before a child first enters the classroom, and which is influenced by a number of factors outside of the classroom. As a result, more communities are developing cross-sector partnerships that support student success from cradle to career by coordinating and implementing a shared community vision. This approach, known as collective impact, is a framework for taking bold, systemic, collaborative approaches that cut across organizations and sectors to achieve significant and lasting social change.

Equal Measure has completed an evaluation of the Commit! Partnership in Dallas, a cross-sector partnership of more than 100 organizations working toward student attainment goals in Dallas County, TX. In our evaluation of Commit! (completed in September 2014), Equal Measure assessed the partnership’s strengths and challenges as a “backbone” organization supporting community partners, and examined how the organization is helping partners advance progress toward improving educational outcomes for children.

In addition, Equal Measure is conducting a national evaluation of StriveTogether’s Cradle to Career (C2C) Network, which consists of nearly 100 communities aiming to build civic infrastructure to improve educational outcomes. StriveTogether’s approach recognizes the need for communities to work across silos, and consider ways to improve and align systems that have repeatedly failed children and youth.

Our evaluation of the C2C Network focuses on understanding how communities build civic infrastructure, as well as the relationship between civic infrastructure and youth outcomes. By exploring how partners – including education institutions, community based organizations, funders, and policy-makers – have shifted their practices and policies to support successful cradle to career programming, Equal Measure is examining strategies that contribute to successful cross-sector partnerships both within and among community networks.

The Results

These two evaluations indicate that cross-sector partnerships create collective support for new opportunities to improve education outcomes. For example, through the evaluation of the Commit! Partnership, Equal Measure learned that partner organizations valued the “backbone organization” as a critical facilitator and manager of the collaboration. Commit!’s staff and data capacity were key assets in drawing attention to student needs, developing targeted strategies, and supporting partners to implement those strategies.

Our ongoing evaluation of the StriveTogether Network has uncovered insights into the operation of collective impact partnerships. As a whole, StriveTogether’s C2C Network has been successful in getting funders to align around its goals and strategies, and has demonstrated that the “backbone organization” model is effective in managing organizational infrastructure and facilitating the cross-sector implementation of civic infrastructure development. Furthermore, the evaluation has begun to uncover a series of patterns in partnerships’ development of civic infrastructure that hold true across a diverse array of communities. These early findings suggest there are shared commonalities in how communities develop and begin to shift civic infrastructure toward improving educational outcomes.

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