Business seen as key driver in ‘collective’ fix for local schools

Business can play a leading role in shaping and advancing local collaborative efforts to better prepare children in poverty to thrive in school and life, a new report says.

The report looks at 145 communities in which business, government, nonprofits, public schools, parent groups and religious organizations coordinate their work through a strategy known as “collective impact.”

In those communities surveyed in which students have shown progress, business leaders and employees have been instrumental, says Business Aligning for Students: The Promise of Collective Impact, a report from Harvard Business School.

Business frustration

U.S. businesses contribute billions of dollars and countless volunteer hours every year to public education, says the report, which is based on interviews with 70 business and collective-impact leaders, and on the first national survey of leaders and business participants in collective-impact initiatives.

“Yet business leaders are often frustrated by the slow progress in improving outcomes,” it says.

‘Delivery chaos’

Much of business support for education targets nonprofits that serve students outside the classroom, and each supported nonprofit typically addresses only a single piece of a complicated educational “ecosystem,” the report says.

“The nonprofits seldom collaborate with each other, rarely share common goals, and measure outcomes inconsistently,” it says. “The result is service delivery chaos: Some services are duplicated, others are missed, and great providers do not displace poor ones.”

The process and structure of collective impact, however, can “shift the service delivery system from chaos to coherence,” it says.

While the strategy differs in each community, it brings schools, nonprofits, government, parent groups, businesses,  and religious groups together, keeps them working together, and focuses on developing common goals for students, improving the quality and coverage of services, identifying best practices, and measuring results, the report says.

Kids in poverty

Nearly 12 million students are likely to  drop out of school over the next 10 years, and will cost the U.S. $1.5 trillion in lost income, according to estimates from the Alliance for Excellent Education, the report says.

Over the past 30 years, despite pockets of progress, an achievement gap among racial groups in the U.S. has persisted, and it has narrowed at a snail’s pace.

In 1982, black students scored 34 points below their white counterparts on the math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Three decades later, the gap still was 28 points.

And between 1994 and 2013, the number of U.S. public-school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch grew to more than half of all students from a third.

“Many impoverished students begin kindergarten with a deficit that often cannot be overcome during their lives,” the report says.

Dysfunctional system

Despite an infusion of resources over the years, the system for delivering services to meet the needs of young people affected by poverty has shown little change, the report says

“Most government programs and nonprofit organizations operate in isolation and have little or no outcome data available to prove effectiveness or to compare one programs’s results to those of another,” it says.

That lack of data, it says, “makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for business leaders and others to know how to allocate their resources efficiently.”

Most communities, the report says, suffer from  “an overabundance of nonprofit service providers,” and may have multiple programs to address a single need, but none to address other needs.

In 2013 alone, it says, over 89,000 nonprofits — up 7 percent from a year earlier — provided services to young people “from cradle to career.”

Throughout the U.S., the report says, too many government programs and nonprofits work independently, with “few if any shared goals,” as well as “service redundancies existing alongside service gaps, and inadequate means to measure effectiveness.”

Collective impact

Dating from the early 2000s, the strategy of collective impact “fundamentally changes the way essential services are delivered to young people living in poverty,” the report says.

Applying the strategy to education, it says, the “rate of educational improvement will accelerate, particularly for students living in poverty, if the numerous service providers in a community delivering programs from ‘cradle to career’ work together and in partnership with the school district to align their activities around a set of agreed-upon goals, use metrics to make decisions and determine progress, and identify and implement best practices.”

In greater Cincinnati, the report says, leading business executives concerned about the lack of improvement in public schools helped launch one of the first collective-impact initiatives eight years ago, and still are active in leading it.

As a result of that community-wide effort, the number of children ready for kindergarten is up 13 percentage points; reading proficiency in 4th grade is up 21 percentage points; 8th-grade math proficiency has improved 24 percentage points; high school graduation rates are up 14 percentage points; and post-secondary enrollment has grown 11 percentage points.

Changing the ecosystem

Collective impact is an “innovative process that provides a clearly articulated structure for achieving educational ecosystem change,” the report says.

The strategy provides “a powerful mechanism for coordinating and improving programs outside the classroom,” and “helps the changes in teaching and curriculum occurring inside the classroom realize their full potential.”

Collective impact “could be the game changer we have sought for so long in American public education,” the report says.

But the strategy is “not an easy or quick fix,” it says.

“If transformation of the education ecosystem is the key to sustained improvement in education outcomes — and we believe it is — then Collective Impact is a good bet,” the report says. “It may succeed in some places without business being involved, but we have learned that if the business community lends its support and expertise, the odds of success are greatly enhanced.”

Authors of the report are Allen S. Grossman, a senior fellow and retired professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, and Ann  B. Lombard, a senior researcher for the U.S. Competitiveness Project.

Todd Cohen

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