Improving Educational Outcomes Through Collaboration

Vanessa Wilkins, Partners in Scale
Posted: June 20, 2013

How do we improve educational outcomes for all kids? Increase the time they spend in school and improve that time – by making it more hands-on (and fun!) for kids, giving teachers more time to collaborate and address the individual needs of each child, and bringing programs from community partners like Boys & Girls Clubs or the YMCA into our schools. At least that’s what the “TIME Collaborative” is trying to do in five states where they are expanding learning time (ELT).

Wednesday’s breakout panel discussion on “Multi-Sector Collaboration in Education” at the Social Impact Exchange Conference shared lessons and challenges from the National Center on Time and Learning’s multi-state partnership with the Ford Foundation and thirty school districts.

According to Jennifer Davis of the National Center on Time and Learning, coordinating all of the public and private actors to make ELT possible required significant time and effort. First, Federal waivers for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) needed to align with state reform efforts and district needs in order to unlock funding from dedicated streams that could be more effectively leveraged at the local level.

Second, private funders need to be both patient and flexible to allow schools and districts to customize ELT to meet local needs. Jeannie Oakes of the Ford Foundation noted that the Foundation tried to take a supportive rather than leading role to make the collaboration work. 

Third, panelists acknowledged that their reforms would require additional public investment in education, but that “20% more time can’t mean 20% more money,” according to Mark Benigni, the Superintendent of the Meriden, Connecticut School District. TIME was first piloted in Massachusetts where the state initially put in $1,300 per student to implement ELT. As an education advocate in Oregon where funding levels are nowhere near those in Massachusetts or Connecticut, this is disappointing to hear, but a reality that needs to be addressed in thinking about scaling nationally.

A few themes from many of the sessions on making collaboration work were also mentioned in the context of TIME:

  • Partners need to clearly articulate a shared vision and common goals for their collaborative effort, and then go further to document roles and responsibilities, as well as expectations for engagement and follow up. When collaborators have to decide how to “Rob Peter to pay Paul,” as Nick Donohue of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation noted is often required, strong commitments to a shared vision is an absolute requirement.
  • As we struggle with scaling what works, we need to admit mistakes, learn from them and move on. Learning from failure is a welcome addition to the philanthropic sector where outcomes and impact are difficult to measure.

Finally, most speakers here recognize that collaboration is harder and more time consuming than acting independently, but that the payoffs are bigger and longer lasting. I’m reminded of the African proverb prominently displayed across the main offices at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

Vanessa Wilkins is the Co-Founder of Partners in Scale, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and foundations to increase their impact.