The Intervention That Works Across Settings With All Children

Our guest authors today are Geoff Marietta, Executive Director, Pine Mountain Settlement School and Research Fellow at Berea College; Chad d'Entremont, Executive Director, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy; and Emily E. Murphy, Director, Massachusetts Education Partnership (MEP) at the Rennie Center. Their work focuses on research and practice in labor-management-community collaboration.

If you learned there was an intervention to improve student outcomes that worked for nearly all children across communities, what would stop you from using it? This intervention has closed learning gaps, both in urban communities serving predominantly low-income minority students and in isolated rural areas with large numbers of white and Native American students living in poverty. It has worked in suburban, urban, and rural settings with white, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, and multi-racial students. That intervention is collaboration.

In this post, we define collaboration, briefly discuss the growing evidence associating collaboration with student success, and describe some of our ongoing work, which focuses on designing tools to facilitate, formalize, and focus the hard but worthwhile and necessary responsibility of working together.

Collaboration means different things for different people. Some equate it with compromise, others with slow movement, while still others conceptualize it as the best way to build momentum and ideas that can be put into action. Collaboration also happens at different levels—among classroom teachers in the same school or between leaders across a community. To reap the benefits of what we call labor-management-community collaboration, it must be viewed and used as a process through which stakeholders who see parts of the problem differently can explore these differences and construct solutions that are better than what they could have come up with on their own (Gray 1989, pp. 1-25). This definition, provided by Barbara Gray, a recognized expert on collaboration, incorporates five key features:

  • Interdependence. Stakeholders are interdependent. They rely on each other to get work done and accomplish goals.
  • Joint Solutions. Solutions to problems emerge as the stakeholders work through their different conceptions of the problem.
  • Ownership in Decisions. There is joint ownership of the decisions made by the stakeholders collaborating. Stakeholders feel included in the decision and are willing to defend it to critics.
  • Responsibility for Outcomes. Stakeholders assume collective responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions. When things go wrong or right, stakeholders are willing to accept responsibility.
  • Dynamism. The collaboration process is emergent, dynamic, and develops over time. There is a sense of continual progress.

Collaboration Works

There is growing evidence of the positive impact on student achievement when stakeholders collaborate. When labor, management, and community leaders worked together, Montgomery County, Maryland saw a double-digit closure in the math and reading achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts in nearly every grade (Eckert 2011).*

Studies on a cross-section of urban and rural districts, large and small, show how labor-management collaboration was created and sustained to improve overall teacher quality and accelerate student achievement (McCarthy and Rubinstein 2011; Rubinstein and McCarthy forthcoming). In Union City, New Jersey, teachers, admin­istrators, and community members banded together to co-design curricula, professional development, and evaluation systems to improve student performance. The results have been remarkable. In a district with nearly 11,000 students—96 percent Hispanic and 85 percent low-income—language arts and math proficiency matched or exceeded statewide averages in 2013. Compared to Hispanic and low-income students in New Jersey overall, Union City children exhibited double-digit leads in academic proficiency (Anrig 2013; NJDOE 2012).

Collaboration is Necessary

Despite their demonstrated success, the number of meaningful partnerships in the country is modest. And this is not because collaboration is unnecessary. Quite the contrary, collaboration is critical for solving complex social problems—poverty, gun violence, abuse, and educational inequality. These and other social struggles cut across organizational, political, geographical, and ideological boundaries (Trist 1983). Solutions can only be devised when labor, management, and community stakeholders work together. In their influential article, “Collective Impact,” Kania and Kramer (2011) lay out the characteristics of deep community-wide collaboration, which they call Collective Impact. This type of collaboration is defined by long-term commitments by a group of important actors from different sectors—teachers unions, school districts, businesses, and community organizations—to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.

Making Collaboration Work

The potential of and need for collaboration is tremendous. The challenge for leaders and practitioners is how to stimulate effective collaborative action. Different organizational goals, cultures, procedures, and languages create barriers to success (Tajfel 1981; Huxham and Vangen 2001). Yet, practical and accessible resources on how to overcome these barriers and collaborate effectively are hard to find. Teachers, administrators, and community partners are often unaware of the rising tide of research and reports on labor-management collaboration. And, even those that know of it, struggle to make sense of it at a more practical level.

As a part of the Massachusetts Education Partnership’s work, managed by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, we are designing a toolkit that brings disparate research and resources together in one place for educators, community partners, and policymakers. Our toolkit illustrates tools and best practices, using rich case studies of communities that engage in collaboration involving labor, management, and community stakeholders with the goal of accelerating student achievement.

The toolkit builds on research and work with districts and communities across Massachusetts and the nation. An initial guide, published by the Rennie Center in 2014, generated a lot of interest and demand by practitioners and policymakers. We were urged to expand the toolkit into a comprehensive manual on labor-management-community collaboration.  

The toolkit, which will be published in 2017, walks educational leaders and practitioners through a step-by-step process of getting collaboration started in their communities, or of expanding and deepening existing efforts. We start first with a basic understanding of collaboration and what it means to partner on meaningful reform with a broad group of community stakeholders. This sets the foundation for applying processes and tools to reach the end goal of effective collaboration, when stakeholders construct solutions that are better than what they could have come up with on their own.

  • Assess Readiness and Identify the Problem. Before engaging in collaboration, it is essential to assess readiness to do so. A comprehensive and transparent needs assessment lays the foundation for collaboration by identifying stakeholders’ differing views on major issues. Those involved in the collaboration can then begin reconciling how their perspectives align or diverge. This process is critical to arriving at specific strategies that people doing the work feel engaged with and are willing to implement. The needs assessment can take on many different forms. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews of teachers, parents, students, community members, administrators, and board members can all be useful tools in a needs assessment. Although the process and audience might be very different across communities, a successfully implemented needs assessment serves to identify critical building blocks of community-wide collaboration, including baseline facts and performance data, readiness to collaborate, and perceptions of problems.  
  • Successfully Team Up to Address the Problem. Once readiness is assessed and a problem identified, it is time to form the team (if one doesn’t already exist). Team recruitment must be thoughtful, intentional, and attentive to the problem being solved. Given that most teams will be responsible for bringing their project from design to implementation, it is important, during team formation, that considerable attention be given to including those individuals who will be responsible for sustaining the work, including community members, principals, teachers. Also critical is that the team develops good norms. All too often team members rush to begin work, as they are eager to start making progress on a defined goal. Although taking time to understand the working styles and skill sets of each team member can seem like a distraction, evidence suggests that teams that slow down, cultivate good norms, and build a sense of trust and understanding prior to commencing the work lay a more solid foundation for collaboration.
  • Understand How Process can Facilitate Solving the Problem. There is a saying that “process trumps strategy.” The reason is that the environment is always changing, and strategies must respond to those changes. Process is critical to responding and recrafting an effective strategy in a timely manner. We advocate for taking a problem-solving approach that uses the features of interests-based bargaining. An interests-based negotiation process aims to maximize outcomes by prioritizing relationships and promoting structures meant to build and expand trust. Facilitators (either internal or external) are key structural elements and are there to encourage participation in problem solving amongst all team members. An interests-based process places a strong emphasis on transparent information sharing, jointly chaired committees, and identifying the shared interests behind the problem.  
  • Put the Process to Work to Solve a Specific Problem. The hallmark feature of any successful collaboration is that the stakeholders are working on a problem that is specific, meaningful, and connected to student learning. A well-defined and important topic not only motivates people to engage in collaborative work, it can also help team members get through difficult times. Working on meaningful reforms also brings in a wider and more diverse group of stakeholders. The challenge is identifying an issue that is important, connected to learning, and within the locus of control of stakeholders. Issues that require federal or state funding, or contract or policy changes, often are not good places to start for newly formed collaborations. Ultimately, the goal is for people at the table to be able to drive meaningful reform through a collaborative decision making process.
  • Plan for When it Goes Wrong (which it will). Collaboration rarely goes as planned. Leaders come and go, elections produce unexpected results, and external shocks, such as budget cuts, introduce new tensions. Such disruptions can undermine and even lead to the suspension of collaborative activities. It is critical in any collaborative process that participants expect challenges and do not give up when they occur. To get through difficult times, stakeholders must establish clear ground rules for communication, procedures for individuals to join and leave collaborative projects, and formalized structures, such as joint labor-management committees, that extend shared decision-making processes beyond personal relationships. 

Collaboration between educators, leaders, and community members, when effectively implemented, can be a significant driver of improvements no matter the setting or student. The challenge is overcoming the barriers of favoritism and misunderstanding inherent in working with people from different backgrounds and organizations. And these obstacles are often exacerbated in education, where the pace of reform has accelerated, and increasingly requires federal, state, and local stakeholders to work together.

It is, however, no longer a choice whether to collaborate. In an increasingly globalized and service-based economy, collaboration is growing and will continue to do so. In education, the effectiveness of any one of recent reforms, such as Common Core, teacher evaluation, and new school choice models, is inextricably tied to the ability of school committee members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and union leaders to work together. We hope our toolkit will make the experience of working with others more effective, and help collaboration reach its full potential as a cross-setting policy intervention.


* Also see: Marietta, G.E. (2011). The unions in Montgomery County Public Schools. S.M Johnson (Ed.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.