Here’s a tough question: What would you do to achieve dramatic improvements in the quality of public education? Over many decades, this has proven to be one of the thorniest problems facing educators, parents, and taxpayers. Despite countless efforts at reform, the performance of US public secondary schools has been on a long, downhill slide. The pandemic has only made things worse.
The causes of this decline are so varied and complex that it’s tempting to regard the problem as intractable. No single fix—lower student-teacher ratios, higher teacher salaries, greater parental involvement, or curriculum reform—has proved capable of turning things around. Yet in 2006, a window on real progress opened when KnowledgeWorks, an education-focused think tank, launched its “StrivePartnership” in Cincinnati, Ohio. What made this effort unique was the size and scope of the community that came together to tackle the problem of poor academic performance. More than three hundred institutions participated, including school districts, private foundations, city agencies, area employers, local universities, and dozens of advocacy groups.
Recognizing the systemic nature of the problem, members of the Strive community set themselves the goal of improving education “from cradle to career.” To ensure cohesion, the partners adopted a single set of overarching goals. Fifteen subcommunities, deemed Student Success Networks, self-organized to focus on specific issues such as early childhood education and tutoring. Each network agreed on common metrics to evaluate progress and committed itself to being scrupulously evidence-based in recommending and evaluating actions. Many also elected to use common problem-solving methodologies such as Six Sigma. This helped forge a common language and a shared understanding of root causes.
Network members met in person for two hours every two weeks to refine goals, craft plans, and calibrate progress. Between meetings, their conversations moved forward on social platforms like Google Groups. As networks became more cohesive, parochial concerns receded into the background. For example, when data showed that private preschools often did a better job of preparing children for kindergarten than public ones, the city school system redirected resources into private programs.
The Success Networks often spawned subsidiary networks within member institutions. Many local schools established “data war rooms” with performance charts plastered on the walls. Teachers would meet every two weeks to review data on academic performance, absenteeism, and behavioral problems. By carefully tracking these trends, teachers became better at connecting at-risk students with outside help, and identifying the sort of interventions that could make the biggest difference.
Within four years of its launch in Cincinnati, the StrivePartnership had produced gains in thirty-four of fifty-three key performance areas. Kindergarten readiness advanced by 9 percent, fourth-grade math skills went up by 14 percent, and high school graduation rates jumped 11 percent.
These results attracted national attention, and today there are seventy Strive communities across the United States. The challenge of scaling up forced Strive’s coordinating body to articulate its “Theory of Action”—the core steps required to build strong, problem-focused communities:
- Clarify shared, measurable results important to community partners
- Identify audiences that need to be involved in working to achieve the result
- Determine the skills different partners need to take effective action
- Design teams of leaders and practitioners and support them in ongoing, experiential learning
If you want to dig deeper into this remarkable story, I encourage you to check out a discussion Gary and I recently had with Jeff Edmondson, Strive’s Managing Director during its formative years:
You’ll get a better sense of the power that's unleashed when we start to think of organizations less as hierarchies and more as “performance-oriented communities.” When we’re driven not by executive fiat, but unity, selflessness, determination, and accountability, even the most daunting challenges become surmountable.