Earlier this month, Parv Santhosh-Kumar and I had an incredible opportunity to gather together with 35 social sector leaders and spend three days at the Skid Row School for Large-scale Change. The experience was transformative.
For one, it came at the end of what has been a year filled with high highs and low lows. I think that we can all probably relate to this. Just when you feel like you’re making progress, you turn on the news and realize there’s so much more work to be done. So needless to say it was quite therapeutic to be able to spend time with like-minded professionals, each seeking to make the world a better place, and commiserate about our successes and failures on our respective journeys.
Next, similar to the StriveTogether approach, the leaders of the Billions Institute and the Skid Row School faculty put together a curriculum that forces participants to address both the adaptive and technical aspects of leading social change. We heard Becky Margiotta (keynote speaker at the 2016 StriveTogether National Convening and co-founder of the Billions Institute) share lessons learned from her work to combat homelessness on the 100,000 Homes Campaign, Joe McCannon (co-founder of the Billions Institute and former vice president at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) share his work to improve patient safety on the 100,000 Lives Campaign and Nana A.Y. Twum-Danso (founder and CEO of MAZA) discuss her work to reduce infant mortality in Ghana as part of the Project Fives Alive! Campaign.
Dan Heath (2015 StriveTogether National Convening keynote speaker and co-author of Switch) provided individual coaching on getting super clear about our intervention to help mobilize others to care about the change we are trying to make and change their behavior as a result. And lastly, Christine Margiotta (executive director of Social Venture Partners Los Angeles) pushed us to uncover some of the “unspeakable invisibles” — such as fear of failure, scarcity mindset, indecision, overreliance on consensus and running on overwhelm — that exist in all of us and keep us from creating the change we want to see.
To try and distill my learning from the three-day school into some key takeaways was not an easy task, so I’m sharing a few key nuggets today and you can expect to see more from us as we incorporate our learnings into the everyday work we do with the Network:
1. If you want to spark change, feeling is the fuel. We have to generate interest in our mission to motivate behavior change. We cannot allow process to be the albatross. Most people are not motivated by static data charts. We have to match the rigor of our improvement approach to get results with an equal effort to motivate, mobilize and do a better job of telling the story about the impact on kids. That’s what humans care about. In Switch speak, this is what “motivates the elephant.”
2. Smart aims are like unicorns. Very rarely do organizations have quantifiable, time-bound objectives or aims like ours — five proof point communities (with measurable outcomes improving and evidence of systems changing) by June 2018. To set a smart aim, you have to first understand what complete success looks like for you, understand where you are in the expansion process and then set a specific time-bound goal for the next 18-36 months. As long as you are tight on aims, you can afford to be loose on everything else.
3. When you operate in fear, everything rustles. One of the primary reasons organizations and individuals do not set smart aims is because of fear. Fear often leads to blame, criticism and self-doubt. In order to do this work, according to the Billions Institute’s Model for Unleashing, you must be willing to “hug the bear,” or confront your fear head on, unpack what’s behind it and embrace failing forward.
4. Amateurs talk strategy, leaders talk logistics. Joe and Becky of the Billions Institute posit that achieving large-scale change requires organizations to operate Inside the Command Center. Teams who operate in this way put it all together — they get clear on their intervention and their aim, they embrace fear head on, they don’t get hung-up on business as usual, they do exactly what it takes to achieve results.
We look forward to continued partnership with organizations like the Billions Institute and other graduates of the Skid Row School for Large-scale Change. Changing systems to change the world is some pretty big work. We are fortunate to have great partners to learn from and grow with along the way.
Collective impact has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the social sector, and, unfortunately, the term gets used for a range of activities that deviate from the original intent: achieving results at scale. Our focus with the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network has been to establish standards for what this work really takes to achieve its true purpose. We have tried to clarify how it differs from collaboration, but that has not been enough as this beautiful concept continues to get watered down.
In order to show the true power of collective impact, we are investing in a core group of communities to become demonstration sites or “Proof Points.” One of our key insights thus far from this work is that communities need to create a culture and build the capability to use data not just to prove what works, but to improve how they support children each and every day. There is an entire field built around this practice known as continuous improvement. Most of the lessons and insight are based on all that has been learned from its application in the private sector. Fortunately, the health sector has been working over the last 20 years to help use the science in hospitals, giving us key insights into how continuous improvement can apply in the social sector in general.
We are currently on the cutting edge of understanding how this work can best work in the education sector and across community partners, and we want to capture these lessons and share them rapidly to help raise the bar on quality from the start and avoid the propagation of yet another buzzword in our sector. Back in 2008 when the flagship cradle-to-career partnership was launched in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we worked with GE Aviation to apply one continuous improvement method — Six Sigma — to help partners use data to improve outcomes at scale. We had some significant failing forward experiences that inform our work now with the Network and can inform the field as a whole. These form a baseline of knowledge we have been building on significantly as communities including Dallas, Memphis and Spartanburg continue to test new ways of applying improvement in the field.
A few key lessons have emerged to inform the field as a whole. These include:
- Continuous improvement is not a technical tool but an adaptive process. In the work to apply Six Sigma in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, we became overly focused on the process and related tools. We provided traditional classroom lectures and over 100 pages of technical documents. This masked the true challenge of improvement: dealing with the changes in behavior those engaged in the process must consider as they learn more about what does and does not work for those they serve. So using a more simplified process — like the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle — and applying it in real time to a real-world project is a much more effective way to learn.
- The team doing improvement work matters … a lot! We were often happy just to get participants from different systems to show up at meetings. We did not care who it was or how often they came. We just wanted the institutions represented. It is impossible to make progress with an ever-changing cast of characters. Instead, it is critical to map out exactly who needs to be involved and to make sure they stay consistently engaged based on the role they play. Leaders need to be visible champions and practitioners need to be working to interpret data at least every other week. Without this level of clarity, the significant time invested won’t lead to any significant change.
- New roles and capability are needed to embed and sustain the work in communities. Given the complexity of managing the change process and engaging the right people in the right roles, it is critical to invest in having new roles and building partner skills and capability. Having continuous improvement coaches work arm-in-arm with practitioners to help them gather, analyze and (most importantly) apply learning to their everyday work is simply critical. Simultaneously investing in training to build the capability of partners to model improvement in their organizations, is fundamentally critical to embedding the work in the community long term.
This is only scratching the surface of the lessons StriveTogether is learning to make sure communities not only realize the potential of collective impact, but bring the rigor required to the practice of continuous improvement right from the start. If we focus on quality, we can achieve better results for children and communities — and embed a critical body of work in our everyday practice to improve outcomes for kids … not just create another buzzword.
When working to increase FASFA rates, cradle to career partnerships are always looking for proven, easy to replicate strategies that lead to results. Through the work of the Postsecondary Enrollment Impact and Improvement Network, we know the effective strategies used to make sure that more students successfully completed the FAFSA.1. Implement In-Class Interventions
In most states, FAFSA completion work can be used to meet state curriculum standards. Partnering with high school economics or social studies teachers to have students complete FAFSA as a class or homework assignment provides them with the opportunity and support needed to complete the FAFSA.2. Use Student-Level and/or School-Level Data
In most states, school districts have the ability to track FAFSA completion at the school- and/or student-level. Using school-level or, better yet, the student-level helps to identify the students who are or are not completing the FAFSA. This allows school districts and their partners to focus their work on the specific students or schools that needs the most support.3. Build a School- Campus-Based FAFSA Team
School- or Campus-Based FAFSA teams improve staff awareness about the importance of FAFSA completion and how they can help. Convening a team (assistant principal, guidance counselor, central office staff, Gear Up partners, etc.) on a monthly basis allows its members to review the data and discuss strategies for how to reach students who have yet to complete the FAFSA.4. Host FAFSA Only Events
The most successful FAFSA events, like a FAFSA completion night, were the ones that just focused on FAFSA because it created the space and time for students and families to focus. Identifying a champion for each event helped determine the best time of day for the event to ensure the best attendance possible.5. Assign Appointment Times
Assigning students an appointment time to complete the FAFSA, either during a completion event or during the school day, makes the meeting or event seem mandatory. The appointment times were not strictly enforced, there was no penalty for missing an appointment but the assumed accountability associated with the appointment time dramatically increased completion rates.6. Frequent Data Monitoring
Most school districts across the country have the ability to access weekly or bi-weekly FAFSA completion data either form their state’s department of education or the U.S. Department of Education. Monitoring completion rates either weekly or bi-weekly allows school district staff and community partners to get quick feedback the effectiveness of their FAFSA completion work and helps keep FAFSA completion at the front of everyone’s mind.7. Partner with Local Postsecondary Institutions
Partnering with local postsecondary institutions can help significantly with FAFSA completion. Financial aid staff are experts in their field and can provide additional capacity and support during FAFSA completion efforts. Additionally, financial aid staff can provide insight on what is specifically preventing students from getting the financial aid they have applied for – often times it’s a simple as a missing social security number or mismatched identification numbers.8. Connect Work to its Impact with Run Charts
Run Charts, or time series charts, can be used to connect FAFSA completion work with the result (the number of FAFSAs completed during the work period). As a result, run charts are incredibly powerful tools so partnerships who want to understand the impact their work is having on students.9. Create a FAFSA Phone Bank
Having a scheduled event where parents, guardians and students can call in to ask questions about completing the FAFSA was a very successful way to reach families who didn’t want or need to attend a completion event.10. Test Small Before Going Big
All of our teams focused on FAFSA completion selected a specific population of students or high school as the focus of their initial work. With each intervention this allowed the teams to learn what worked well and what could be improved before scaling the work across multiple high schools or multiple districts.
Over the past year, six communities across the country have been participating in StriveTogether’s Postsecondary Enrollment (PSE) Impact and Improvement Network. The goal is to increase FAFSA completion in their communities. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). An increase in FAFSA completion means more students have access to financial aid for, and access to, college.
Using a combination of continuous improvement techniques, Results Based Leadership tools and an equity focus, we’ve achieved great success!
- 5 out of 6 partnerships: Increased FAFSA completion rates at the school level
- 4 out of 6 partnerships: Increased FAFSA completion rates at the district level
- 3 out of 6 partnerships: Increased FAFSA completion rates by 10% or more
“Our participation [in the PSE Impact and Improvement Network] helped to lay the foundation for setting multi-year goals focused on FAFSA and to build buy-in for the importance of FAFSA regionally.” – Impact Tulsa
The results of the PSE Impact and Improvement are exciting. But, what I find the most interesting about the results is the way that they were achieved. Each partnership used basic continuous improvement techniques like Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) test cycles, run charts and frequent data monitoring and reporting to test their strategies and improve them over time. Here’s why the PSE Impact and Improvement Network members found these tools so useful:
“I believe the biggest benefit of participation is sharing of best practices and tools. When you see the impact of the interventions, it really takes guessing out of the picture and encourages more intentionality.” – PSE Impact & Improvement Network member
“The PDSA helped tremendously to ensure each step was aligned to the overall goal. It helped us operate much more systematically and helped us improve our process.” – Seeding Success
“Mapping interventions to data (even after the fact) helped raise awareness about effective practices.”Commit! Partnership
“Using run charts helped us identify the most promising interventions because we could literally see what worked the best.” – P16 Plus
“Looking at data regularly, and talking about it is important. Regularly updating superintendents, the school teams, our collaborative action group (PACT), and various stakeholders across the community with progress kept the momentum going and created a “middle” space for best practices to rise up and spread.” – All Hands Raised
“Sharing before and after [FAFSA] completion numbers with each event team help them immediately see the need for follow-up events and strategize about students they were missing.” – Road Map Project
The 7th Annual Cradle to Career Network Convening was an outstanding success! This is due solely to the great work each and every person in the room does to achieve our ambitious vision – supporting the success of every child from cradle to career – and our short-term goal: Establishing five Proof Points by June 2018.
This is so exciting. And there is so much more to do.
Now that we know how to use data on the ground to inform action, we have to RISE UP and make absolutely sure we are identifying the most critical practices to eliminate disparities for every child in each community across the country. In order for all this work to be worth the effort, we must directly address the structural racism that far too often hinders our ability to spread and scale those impactful practices to make sure they are at the fingertips of every child who needs them.
There were three key insights that emerged for me that were captured in some incredibly profound insights from the amazing cadre of presenters. But I wanted to make one general observation about the Network overall: we have successfully made the shift from partners simply talking about working together to partners actually changing how they work every day to improve outcomes. You are no longer talking about getting to action. You are using data to act differently and seeing real and tangible improvements as a results.
We can do it, especially if we internalize the following insights:
- “Our ability to understand what the data is telling us is limited by the knowledge we bring to it.” – Adriane Johnson-Williams
We are challenged to accept that the typical partners engaged in change and improvement do not have all the answers. We must engage parents and caregivers, students and educators to help us better understand what the data tells us about both the real issues we must address and the real impact for the programs and services we are analyzing. We simply can’t interpret data in a vacuum.
- “No more heroing.” – Becky Margiotta
It feels so good to save the day. It’s amazing. I always reflect on the movie Waiting for Superman and the stark realization there simply is not one coming. We have to look in the mirror. And there will be people who put up roadblocks, trying to protect the status quo. These folks who “pee in the pool” tempt us to want to come to the rescue. But our role is to empower others to stand up and confront the challenge and ensure whatever is done is sustained as long as it has impact.
- “Who’s history do we teach when none of the demographic boxes we ask children to check work anymore.” – Dr. Jim Johnson
We are in the midst of a massive demographic shift. It’s more like a tsunami. And if we are not armed with the skills and competencies to navigate this shift, those trying to protect the status quo will be all the more likely to trigger more violence. We need to arm community members with new ways to achieve shared results. We have the ability to do this based on all we have learned by combining Results Based Leadership, Continuous Quality Improvement, Design Thinking, and an Equity Lens. What we need to find is how to do this at scale so we embrace the opportunity of this change and all it can mean for our democracy.
As an organization, StriveTogether is committed to maintaining the momentum generated during this event. As we all know, insights must lead to action for true impact. We want to be sure we keep you all as Network members connected with one another to share lessons learned around processes and tools that accelerate the achievement of shared results. Over the next year, you’ll see more opportunities to connect with one another and through cohorts.
Here are a few ideas on next steps. We want to amplify your great work. So let us know what you think of these and/or chime in with other ideas:
- Find Equity Impact Agents: First and foremost, we need to iterate on our Impact Agent stories a bit: let’s find a lift up people changing their behavior to specifically eliminate achievement gaps. Help us find partners who have used data with children, families and practitioners to identify and spread what works for the most vulnerable student. Let’s make them rock stars we can all work to emulate. We need to plaster these stories all over the ballroom at the next convening.
- Take on Structural Racism: In the same vein, let us know how you are working to navigate challenging discussions around race, class, and culture in your community to address the root of structural racism that often prevents us from spreading what works and meeting the real needs of our most vulnerable students. Memphis modeled one way to do it. If you have another, please let us know. We need to make sure everyone can get in the HOV lane on the highway!
- Build Capability: Finally, we have heard that capability-building is a primary and under resourced need in almost every community. We encourage Network members to take advantage of a few opportunities coming up other than the Accelerator Fund. Your partnership data guru can apply for the second round of the wildly popular Tableau Data Fellowship – the application process will open next week. And in December, you can go to Atlanta to learn the basics of Results Based Leadership that is changing how partnerships tackle the most complex challenges. We plan to announce other options in early 2017, so make sure to read the newsletter for announcements.
And just as a quick reminder, starting in January each partnership will have a designated Network Navigator to serve as your StriveTogether liaison to ensure you are able to maximize your Network membership on your journey to Proof Point. And in the interim, you can always head to the Partner Portal to post questions, share and find examples and templates, and find peers that can test your skills and push your thinking.
Thanks again to everyone who joined us in Memphis and for your deep commitment to this work. The time we spent together was both motivating and challenging. It left me with no doubt that we will achieve our short term-goal of establishing five Proof Points by June of 2018 and the lessons we learn will catapult the network to establish many, many more soon thereafter.See our Storify wrap-up from the convening:
[View the story "Rise Up: Education Excellence for Every Child" on Storify]
This week Juliette Price, director of The Albany Promise, a Sustaining member of the Cradle to Career Network, will travel to Washington, DC for a very special visit to the White House in which she will be recognized as one of eleven “White House Champions of Change for College Opportunity” for the work she is facilitating in the community of Albany, NY to improve student outcomes from cradle to career. StriveTogether congratulates Juliette for this exciting and well-deserved honor.
This won’t be Juliette’s first visit to Washington and with her background in public policy she should feel right at home. In fact, Juliette and a team from The Albany Promise visited with White House and Department of Education leaders, including then Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, back in 2014 to provide guidance on how the federal government can make college more affordable and within reach of all students. These conversations helped inspire First Lady Michelle Obama’s work to improve college opportunity through initiatives such as Reach Higher and Better Make Room.
At the local level, Juliette and the partners of The Albany Promise have been digging deep into their data and taking action. Albany has seen SAT test-taking rates increase by 29% – with a 15% increase access for Black and Hispanic students after the partnership helped implement universal in-school SAT and PSAT testing. Partners also joined together to understand and combat the problem of ‘summer melt,’ when students who are committed to going to postsecondary fail to matriculate. You can read more about this work that was recently featured in one of StriveTogether’s #ImpactAgent stories.
Please join us in congratulating Juliette for this honor. We know that she will use this platform as a way to continue to drive improvement in education outcomes for all students.
Too often, policy can seem inaccessible to the people in charge of, or affected by, its implementation. That’s why, in part, the StriveTogether network has identified four different roles cradle-to-career partnerships can play in policy:
- Data expert
- Partner Convener
- Community Mobilizer
Connecting each of these concepts is one major role: liaison.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance of being a community liaison as communities learn about the flexibilities and potential opportunities under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Lillian Pace, Senior Director of National Policy at KnowledgeWorks, and I facilitated a workshop at the 2016 StriveTogether Cradle to Career Convening, Rise Up: Education Excellence for Every Child, in Memphis, Tennessee, last week. The event explored ways that StriveTogether partnerships can best help communities accelerate the achievement of results from cradle to career. The room was filled with representatives from across the country, all with similar priorities—understanding the new ESSA law, exploring the implications for their partnership, and finding opportunities their partnership can take to support the new law’s implementation in their community and in their state.
We presented an overview of the law, focusing specifically on accountability measures and the new data states will collect to determine how schools are performing. (For action items that cradle-to-career partnerships can take to support ESSA implementation, read our one-pager.) The new ways in which a state is required to report on school success gives parents, advocates, and community stakeholders access to data they may have never had before, and StriveTogether partnerships are in a unique position to help them interpret that data with the right partners to continuously improve efforts to improve child outcomes in their communities.
To get a taste of what this might look like, workshop participants reviewed a draft of the California proposed school accountability report card, considered how their communities might react if this was the required report card for their school, and shared ideas about how states and districts can be more thoughtful in presenting data to the community. There was agreement that focusing on growth and proficiency is a positive step for states, as California anticipates doing. The multi-dimensional focus gives credence to schools that are continuously improving—both high and low performing schools.
Which brings me to the liaison piece. Participants talked about how they can help interpret data for parents and community members, finding bright spots and helping establish next steps and strategies for growth in communities. They discussed the nuances of picking particular measurement indicators, such as parent engagement, and focused on how they might be able to help shape the conversation to focus on what’s appropriate for their community.
Finally, participants discussed what ESSA can mean for their stakeholders, including how they want to measure success, how they’d like to give feedback to their state departments of education during this visioning and application process, and developing tools for local partners to understand data once it has been reported upon.
Partnerships can play a key role in bridging the gap between policy and implementation, and ESSA is no exception. Being a liaison and convener to help partners understand the new law will help create an even more robust system of continuous improvement and change, strengthening the communities where partnerships reside.As your community looks at the new ESSA law and explores implications and opportunities of the new law’s implementation in your community and state, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the way data is presented in the California proposed school accountability report card work for your community? What do you think about the new areas of focus being shared?
- What can you do to help interpret data for parents and community members? What kinds of tools, training, or materials would help parents and advocates use this data to find stronger opportunities for all students?
- What does ESSA mean for your stakeholders? How will ESSA impact your work?
- How do you want to measure education success in your community and how can you share that feedback with your state department of education?
At the final morning in Memphis, Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York, invited the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network convening attendees to stand for the gatherings they had attended as she cycled through the locations of the last seven years. Once everyone was on their feet, she announced, “Welcome to the Network!”
The feeling of community was carried over into the morning’s speakers, whose stories of impact ranged from Learn to Earn Dayton’s push for kindergarten readiness to Graduate! Tacoma’s work to improve high school graduation rates. Everyone was invited to see their own impact in making big changes from the smallest step forward.
“The data did the work,” says Ginger Walker of P16Plus, who shared, along with executive director of the partnership Judy McCormick, the impact of making one small test of change at a single campus.
“From teachers to lunchroom staff, everyone was talking about FAFSA completion,” Walker says, highlighting the challenge of college enrollment and persistence among the majority minority population in San Antonio, TX. A FAFSA team was gathered monthly to look at data and make changes in real-time to ensure more students were getting the supports they needed. Government and Economics faculty were incentivized to encourage and give time for FAFSA completion during the school day, and pep rallies were held to rally students around the importance of submitting their FAFSAs. In just one year, they saw an increase of 10 percent, and the program is taking off – 7 campuses will be employing the same methods this coming year.
In Tacoma, WA, they’re seeing tremendous gains, as well. High school graduation rates were estimated at 55 percent in 2010, and have risen steadily over the last five years to 82.6 percent in 2015 – above the state average even among schools whose students aren’t majority economically disadvantaged, which theirs are. Amanda Scott Thomas, Director of Community Partnership, Academic Equity and Achievement at Tacoma Public Schools, insists their successes are due to shared ownership in defining a clear goal.
After digging into the data, the way ahead was clear in Dayton, OH, too. Ritika Kurup, Director of Early Learning with Learn to Earn Dayton, explained how upon seeing the correlation between high school graduation rates and kindergarten readiness, the community mobilized around summer learning efforts. After disaggregating summer reading program data, the disparities were clear. Learn to Earn Dayton shared their findings with local libraries, who took the initiative to change their practices to better support the children most in need. A new library card was introduced, one that didn’t require a parent signature and didn’t accrue late fines. A book drive was also organized to provide books where children need them most: in the home. In 2012, the drive’s first year, 8,000 books were distributed. This year? 80,000. Students with the greatest need received a book a week for 10 weeks.
“It was all about getting the right programming for the right kids,” says Kurup.
And while every partnership had details to share about how their communities achieved such incredible results, Graduate! Tacoma’s Executive Director, Eric Wilson, insists there’s “no silver bullet.”
“It’s not just one thing, it’s 50 things,” says Wilson. Each community is different, but many communities share similar challenges, making annual convenings all the more valuable for learning and networking opportunities. For, as Zimpher pointed out, they’re an opportunity to reaffirm the value of collective impact work and to “hold hands and work together.”