This blog post is part of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can”, which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.
Across the country, the most vulnerable children continue to be at the greatest risk. In the social sector in general, and in education specifically, reports regularly point to the significant disparities we face as a nation. Far too often these reports that disaggregate data in a host of different ways lead us to admire the problem instead of pointing us to meaningful solutions. When the practitioners who have the most connection to children beyond their families—the often overworked and underpaid early-childhood providers, teachers, and non-profit or social service staff—read these kinds of reports that focus on problems over solutions, they hear one very clear and very loud message: work harder!
Fortunately, community partners working together to orchestrate high-quality collective-impact initiatives offer a different solution that calls out to everyone in any given community, not just the practitioners: work smarter.
These communities focused on quality collective impact have uncovered three key steps to working smarter in order to address disparities: a) help partners see they are the system they hope to change, b) have the courage to uncover and confront disparities, and c) use data to change how partners across sectors work each and every day.
Community partners working together to orchestrate high-quality collective-impact initiatives offer a different solution that calls out to everyone in any given community: work smarter.
Looking across communities implementing quality collective impact work, there is no question the first step requires partners to embrace that they are embarking on a systemic, rather than a programmatic, approach to change. What does that mean in real-world terms? First, partners need a completely new way of thinking about how to organize to support, in the case of StriveTogether, the success of children. They need a new mental model. This new mental model should put the kids at the center of our work instead of the institutions. They should think about how we meet the unique needs of individual children, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, instead of assuming children should fit into the siloed way educational institutions and siloed services are organized.
Equally important in embracing this more systemic approach, community partners must also own the reality that they are the system. Rather than thinking of the idea of “systems change” as something distant or separate from themselves, it requires they start to see the role they play in making the system what it is today and, in accordance, how they can change it by changing their own behavior each and every day.
Once this perspective has been established or even seeded among a few dedicated partners who are willing to model this new way of thinking in their everyday work, the next step is to commit collectively to common goals. There are a few common metrics in any given community on key social issues that are the essential “vital signs” of success. All of the over 65 communities in the Cradle to Career Network have agreed on six outcome areas: kindergarten readiness, early grade reading, middle grade math, high school graduation, college enrollment, and degree/certification completion. There are certainly other outcome areas a community may want to adopt based on their local context, but landing on a set of common measures that must improve is critical.
But simply identifying the outcomes is not enough: the partners must then agree to report annually on progress and disaggregate data to unmask the disparities that certainly exist. We have seen communities who are performing in the upper quartile nationally on key educational metrics come face-to-face with the reality that their overall success masks some of the most dramatic disparities in the country. The inequity they uncover by looking at differences in performance based on race, class, and culture becomes a burning platform for action and forces them to completely rethink how they are working to address systemic and institutional racism that plagues their work individually and collectively.
And while the work outlined above is not easy, the third step is where the truly hard work begins for designing a completely new system for meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged children. At this point, communities must start using data proactively at the child level—not the community or school level—to reorient how they approach their work every day. In practical terms, this means an early childhood center working together with primary care physicians to make sure all the basic needs of each child are met, especially those from high-poverty home environments. It means schools working with social services to ensure mental and physical health issues that contribute to educational performance are addressed. It means higher-education institutions hiring social workers who are willing to partner with employment services to make sure first-generation college students have the knowledge and know-how to get a high-paying job. And in every case, it means the public and private investors changing how they make decisions to incentivize and encourage the use of data for the realignment of service provision to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students.
You don’t have to just take my word for it that this can lead to better results. Look at what has happened to high school graduation rates in Tacoma as partners work to change mental models, align around common goals disaggregated by race, and use data to focus on the most vulnerable students:
We can change the outcome and eliminate disparities by working smarter, not harder. It won’t be easy. It will be messy and, as a result, take time. But I know we can make it happen.