I just read a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “No Rich Child Left Behind.”  I wasn’t surprised by what I was reading.  There is a significant gap in education success between high-income families and those of lower socio-economic status. This we know and have known for years.  What did surprise me is how much the gap has grown over the past few decades.  The author, Sean Reardon, found the gap in test scores is around 40 percent larger than it was 30 years ago. He also found that the income test score gap is considerably larger than the black-white test score gap.  “Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.”

I found this shocking and disturbing, given what has seemed to be a great deal of focus and resources dedicated toward closing the achievement gap over the years.  But, as I continued reading, what I found even more surprising was the author’s conclusion for why this rapid widening of the gap has occurred.  After reviewing a significant amount of historical data, particularly related to family income, he found that the academic gap is widening because the rich keep getting richer.  As income inequality rises (which it has substantially over the past decade) rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than even middle-class students, much less poorer students.  Which means that wealthier students are not only better prepared to succeed in their first years of schooling, but ultimately better prepared to succeed in life as a whole. This supports what we know about the critical importance of early childhood education as building the foundation for education success.

So, could it be that we, as a nation, have been focusing on the wrong issues when working to eliminate these educational disparities? Much of the strategies to close the achievement gap have focused on improving teacher quality and failing schools and we have made some great progress, yet the gap continues to widen and at such a rapid pace.  The author suggests that we must also focus on the relationship between family income and educational success and he makes some suggestions for how to address these challenges.  In reviewing his suggestions, it is clear that our work to build cradle to career cross-sector education partnerships is particularly relevant as it will take the combined efforts of business, philanthropy, government and education sectors to close these gaps or better yet, prevent them from occurring.

First, improving outcomes in early childhood education must continue to be a focus for cradle to career partnerships.  If states and the federal government are not going to do the right thing and increase investments in this area, then it is imperative that local partnerships really dig into the early childhood data, identify what is working and align resources to expand these practices, with a specific focus on ensuring greater access and equity when it comes to high-quality early childhood experiences.

Next, cross-sector cradle to career partnerships are uniquely well-positioned to advocate for more family-friendly policies, such as more generous maternity and paternity leave policies or access to high quality childcare.  These types of policies will enable parents to have the flexibility and resources to spend more time supporting and teaching their children.  In fact the business partners at the table of cradle to career partnerships could set the precedent by implementing these policies for their own employees.

There are so many things that partnerships can do to help prevent and eliminate gaps, but what is perhaps the key lesson learned from this particular issue, and so many other education issues, is that it all starts with data.  Just as the author of this piece used data to understand the growing problem of income disparities, cradle to career partnerships must take the finest cut at the data – digging into student data and monitoring important contextual data in order to get at the root cause of the issue and address it head on before the gaps occur.  Only when we have looked at disaggregated data as a community, can we be prepared to have the tough conversations and take the appropriate action that are so critical to reversing this trend.  If the achievement gap begins well before children reach kindergarten, then an ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a pound of cure.

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Quality Benchmarks for Cradle to Career Collective Impact

by Jennifer Blatz on April 23, 2013

When the Collective Impact article appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in early 2011, our phones began ringing off the hook with communities wanting to learn more about the work of building cradle to career civic infrastructure.  Thanks to support from Living Cities we had already worked to capture lessons and work with other sites nationally, but the momentum the article generated expedited the launch of the Cradle to Career Network.  We knew we didn’t have all of the answers here in Cincinnati so we needed to fuel the movement by creating the Network to connect the many communities doing cradle to career collective impact work on the ground and capture the knowledge being generated in order to help share the learning.

And the movement has most definitely been fueled.  Membership in the Cradle to Career Network includes 92 communities across 35 states and 6 different countries and counting.  This rapid growth is exciting as it means that all of these many communities are committed to improving outcomes for kids.  When we came together as a Network for our Annual Convening last fall, however, we were not talking about how to continue to grow the Network.  Rather the conversation was about making sure the Strive approach remained rigorous across all these communities, calling for a more defined structure around what it means to do this work with quality.  If we don’t work to maintain the rigor that is inherent in this approach, collective impact will become little more than business-as-usual collaboration and we will not achieve the results that we want to see for kids.

And so, the process of developing quality benchmarks began and here we are in the midst of the soft launch of the Strive Theory of Action.  The Theory of Action takes the years of captured learnings from the Network and our work on the ground with communities and builds it out into a continuum of quality benchmarks that act as a guide to implementing the Strive Framework.  The Theory of Action clarifies the essential pieces of building and sustaining Cradle to Career Civic Infrastructure, which will allow for a better understanding of how to do this work and act as a guide in where to focus a Partnership’s energy and resources to more efficiently achieve impact. It also acts as a mechanism to hold each other accountable within the network for implementing a collective impact effort with rigor, increasing the consistency of language and approach across communities. And finally, and perhaps most important in all of this, the Theory of Action and quality benchmarks validate local action.  The Theory of Action provides a practical and evidence-based framework to inform and validate local action and focus.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the validation of local action more than the Interactive Theory of Action tool that was built to support the soft launch process of these benchmarks.  The tool incorporates examples from 17 Cradle to Career Network member partnerships, demonstrating how these partnerships have achieved specific benchmarks. But what’s even more amazing than the tool itself is the way in which these 17 cradle to career partnerships, along with leaders from the more than 25 partnerships involved in the vetting and revisions of the many Theory of Action drafts, the more than 350 participants in the 2012 Strive Cradle to Career Convening who put out the initial call for more rigor, and the Network as a whole has really rallied around a new movement – a movement toward quality.  Network members have provided stories, examples, feedback, and advice.  They have struggled, innovated, failed forward and been willing to share it all so that others can learn.  And now they are committing to quality and taking on a rigorous approach to lead to impact.  And when all is said and done and outcomes for kids from cradle to career begin to improve, this Network will have contributed something incredible for the field.  I’m excited to be part of the movement.

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One Lesson from Atlanta

April 9, 2013

There is so much we can learn from the recent indictments of so many administrators in the Atlanta public schools around scrubbing data.  I would like to focus on just one:  as long as we use data for punitive rather than constructive purposes we can expect to keep seeing these types of situations no matter [...]

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Is “Cat Herding” the Best Analogy for Collective Impact?

March 11, 2013

Back in 2006 when we started the work in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky on The Strive Partnership, we came to the realization this work was in great part an engineering challenge as much as anything else.  There were many moving parts and they all needed to be “corralled” in such a way that we could [...]

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The Challenge of Funding the Backbone

March 4, 2013

As we work with sites across the country to build cradle to career civic infrastructure, we are learning a great deal about how communities are overcoming both the adaptive issues that are so fundamentally critical for changing culture to align limited resources and the technical solutions for improving supports for children on the ground.  Perhaps [...]

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Bill Gates Doing His Part to Make Data Cool

February 25, 2013

In his 2013 Annual Letter Bill Gates, Co-Founder and Chairman of Microsoft, talks about the importance of using measurement to improve the human condition; incredible progress can be achieved when you set a clear goal and find a measure that you can directly connect interventions to in order to continuously improve and ultimately move the [...]

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We Can’t Be Program Rich and System Poor

January 24, 2013

Jeff Edmondson, Managing Director of Strive, is guest blogging for Forbes about how we can make smarter social investments.  In the second post of this series, he shares how we cannot program our way to better educational outcomes for students. To read the full blog post click here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/01/24/make-smarter-social-investments-we-cant-be-program-rich-and-system-poor/    

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How focused, accountable collaboration can tackle big problems

January 20, 2013

Ben Hecht, President & CEO of Living Cities recently published a Harvard Business Review blog that highlights concrete ways that organizations can work together to tackle big, societal problems. It’s collaboration, not competition that will help solve problems like poverty, unemployment, homelessness and failing schools. Collaboration isn’t a new concept, but it takes focus, accountability, [...]

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Why underserved students need support

December 23, 2012

Today’s New York Times features a front-page story about a South Texas trio that is academically able, but who face a litany of challenges as they seek to get a college education. It’s a story that is repeated way too often in the United States, where a college education can open the door to the [...]

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Pushing High Achieving, Low Income Students to Competitive Colleges is Critical

December 19, 2012

A new study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Christopher Avery of Harvard University highlights how low income students with high academic ability never apply to a single competitive college. We need to be sure that the high achieving, low income students in our high schools are being encouraged to apply to competitive colleges. [...]

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