Can Collective Impact Move the Needle On Urban Education? This Funder Wants to Find Out

The battle lines in the education wars have been sharply drawn in recent years, with some reformers fixating on poor schools and incompetent teachers, and others blaming poverty and social ills.

Meanwhile, most ordinary people know that inner-city students face all kinds of obstacles: bad schools and teachers, yes, but also the varied hardships that come with being poor. 

And so we're always thrilled when we see education groups (and funders) that take a holistic approach to improving student performance, seeking to tackle all the issues that hold kids back. 

Say Yes to Education is one such group. It's a national education organization that aims to increase the high school and college graduation rates of inner-city students. Say Yes was started back in 1987 by George Weiss, founder and president of the money management firm George Weiss and Associates. 

Say Yes has made its biggest investment in New York, focusing heavy resources in the battered industrial cities of Syracuse and Buffalo. In both places, it's pulled every lever it can without letting ideology get in the way. It's pushed for school-based reforms and improvements, including concessions by teachers unions, but has also focused attention on reducing the social and economic barriers to academic achievement. And it has deployed other approaches to helping students, too, such as extended day and extended year programs, school-day academic support, and mentoring and tutoring. Along the way, Say Yes has brought a wide array of stakeholders to the table to figure out how to improve urban education, and cities themselves. 

(IP editor David Callahan wrote a long piece on Say Yes for the American Prospect a few years ago.)

George Weiss has been the deepest pockets behind Say Yes, and Ford, Carnegie, and other funders have kicked in at times. But the biggest funder other than Weiss has been the Wallace Foundation, which has supported Say Yes with close to $9 million in grants. 

Now, thanks to a recent grant from Wallace, researchers at the Teachers College at Columbia University are taking a close look at how community players and organizations in Buffalo and two other cities can work together to tackle educational and social issues.  

The Teachers College study assumes that no one institution, sector or group can solve complex social and education problems such as substance abuse, high dropout rates, high teen unemployment rates, and teen pregnancy. From there, it's digging into the red-hot question of how collective problem solving actually works around education. Among the questions it's exploring is how financial resources are allocated, how to get and keep the support of community leaders at all levels, and how to best negotiate the often touchy subjects of race and politics.

Leading the study are Carolyn Riehl and Jeffrey Henig of the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College. Henig said about the project: “It could be a prescription for a new way to build and sustain effective reform by combining locally centered, multi-sector initiatives with deliberate attention to coalition building.”

Hilary Rhodes senior research and evaluation officer at the Wallace Foundation states that one goal of the study is “to better understand how collective impact operates, including how people start collaborating to move toward a common goal without self-interest getting in the way.”

Initial results from the study are expected to be published toward the end of 2015, with another report expected to come out in 2017. 

This is important work, particularly in light of how one of the most high-profile urban ed reform efforts of recent years, in Newark, degenerated into ugly civic combat. If Teachers College can figure out the secret sauce for true collaboration, lots of people will be interested in this study.