The tight link between children’s educational outcomes and overall life outcomes, and their socioeconomic backgrounds is no surprise to anyone who works in schools or lives in high-poverty communities. Children experiencing poverty fare worse than their more-affluent peers on all measures of academic achievement, including kindergarten readiness, high-school graduation, and post-secondary achievement. They have less access to preschool, health care, and afterschool and summer learning opportunities. They are also more likely to be suspended from school and involved in the justice system, and to experience traumatic events.
In early 2016, the Harvard Education Redesign Lab, which aims to mitigate the effects of poverty on children through cross-sector collaborations, brought together a consortium of six cities committed to addressing this problem through building new systems of education, opportunity, and support for children. The mayor-led effort, called By All Means, aims to ensure that all children have the opportunity to succeed academically, develop their interests, and lead healthy lives. Over the past two and a half years, each of these cities has created a “Children’s Cabinet”—a governance structure responsible for establishing goals for children in their city. Goals include improving children’s social and emotional wellbeing, expanding out-of-school and summer opportunities, and improving access to early childhood education.
A central feature of By All Means is its cohort-based design; the initiative operates as a network of laboratories that support and learn from one other. It also incorporates elements of the cross-sector, collaborative approach known as “collective impact,” while also emphasizing mayoral leadership and city-wide participation in its focus on education and children’s wellbeing. For example, the lab itself serves as the “backbone organization”—the central organizing group of a collective impact initiative—for the consortium of cities, providing opportunities for collaboration, joint learning, and shared reflection. Twice a year, the lab convenes the city teams at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where they spend two days sharing progress, learning from faculty and field experts, and working together in a neutral environment without the pressures and distractions that exist at home. The lab also supports part-time facilitators in each city, whose role is to keep the collaborative work moving forward. These facilitators serve as the link between each city and the lab, as well as providing crucial support for and facilitation of the Children’s Cabinets.
As cross-sector efforts like this gain traction, we must understand what it takes to sustain them over the long term, and ensure that progress continues despite changes in city or school leadership. The lab has paired research with its support for cities in order to understand what elements enable and accelerate cross-sector collaboration, as well as what challenges impede it. One important finding is that participating in a network like By All Means does indeed substantially strengthen and accelerate each city’s collaborative efforts.
A number of other integrated support organizations—notably, StriveTogether, Promise Neighborhoods, Forum for Youth Investment, and Communities in Schools—also use a network-of-communities approach, but there has been little examination of the importance of networks or the ways they accelerate change. Here are five lessons from our experience using the By All Means cohort model and how it has impacted cities:
1. All-city convenings allow city teams to strengthen internal relationships and deepen their collective work. It is hard to overstate the value to members of having time and space away from their own cities to focus on their collaborative work. While Children’s Cabinets’ schedule regular local meetings, these generally focus on immediate, operational aspects of the work. As one participant wrote:
The convening provides many of us with quality time to share, discuss, and focus on what is important to our work. Most importantly, it provides team members with an opportunity to grow our relationships in a deeper, more meaningful way. Time away from our regular setting leads to moments of deeper connection over dinner, lunch, team time, rides on a plane, or to an airport. These are not things we oftentimes have the ability to do when we are back in our home cities.
2. Cities learn from each other both formally and informally. The By All Means cities have varying levels of expertise in different areas, including developing shared data systems and creating supports for children who have experienced trauma. Webinars and presentations at the convenings, as well as informal conversations, have facilitated learning across the cities. Somerville and Louisville, for example, each showcased their cities’ integrated data systems during webinars early in the consortium’s existence, and other cities followed up to learn more about implementing data systems in their own contexts. One city team member said the consortium helped inform her city’s strategic plan. “We love the sharing out of ideas,” she said. We've stolen some things from Oakland, [and] we work closely with Somerville.”
The convenings also allow mayors and superintendents to join other mayors and superintendents in sessions focused on deepening adaptive leadership capabilities. They also have opportunities to spend unstructured time together, enabling them to share information, experiences, and expertise that relate directly to their role.
3. Participating in a mayor-led network puts positive peer pressure on cities. Mayoral leadership is an important part of By All Means, and it extends to their role in the network. During the convenings, each mayor provides an update on his or her city’s progress over the preceding six months. As Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem says, the presentations provide “good pressure” ahead of the convenings to galvanize the local Children’s Cabinet.
4. The network supports backbone staff. Supporting cities in a collaborative approach to providing comprehensive services and supports for children is not easy. It requires that the governing organization, or backbone, forms strong working relationships with city and community leaders and their staff members. Backbone organizations must also have a nuanced understanding of city politics, and the ability to manage the progress of a complex, interagency effort.
The lab’s facilitators have created their own network of support through monthly phone calls, meetings during convenings, and in-person sessions that include change-management experts. This gives them time to discuss challenges specific to their role and determine the best way to address them.
5. Cities benefit from the lab’s support and expertise as a network convener. The lab’s support for cities includes consultations with experts on topics such as creating long-term financing strategies and addressing issues of racial equity. It has also worked with cities to create an evaluation framework, called the “Measures of Success,” which enables cities to track their progress at each stage of their work, including establishing effective foundational processes through the Children’s Cabinet, providing additional supports and services to children, and measuring changes in child outcomes. Through regular conversations with each city, as well as a data working group that met several times at the beginning of the initiative, the lab provides technical assistance on identifying relevant child outcomes and using the measures as a tool to spur progress.
Collaborative efforts like these are often fraught with political and practical challenges for communities making deep, adaptive changes to the way they operate. Creating and supporting a network of communities that both encourages and challenges its members can accelerate and support their progress. Early successes of the By All Means cities include substantial expansion of summer and afterschool programming, implementation of new social and emotional supports for children, and data sharing agreements between a school district and municipal government. Sustaining these efforts will require ongoing engagement of the people in these communities, as well as a broader network of support.