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Smith: Reinventing school ‘ecosystems’ the Harvard way

The Harvard Business School recently published a paper, as part of its U.S. Competitiveness Project, headlined “Reinventing the Local Education Ecosystem,’’ analyzing a particularly ambitious national movement to improve educational and economic outcomes.

The lengthy Wikipedia explanation of “ecosystem’’ is all about biology and the natural environment, of course. But the definition begins with these five words: “An ecosystem is a community.’’ And the Harvard paper gets right away to how collaboration and symbiotic interaction by the entire larger community are critical for this particular movement.

The paper describes a growing national “Strive Together” network “founded on the belief that educational outcomes could improve (emphasis added) beyond what the public school district could do alone by addressing the full range of a child’s other needs — nutritional,  medical, social, etc. To accomplish this, the [original Strive Partnership in Cincinnati] focused the whole community on a shared set of outcomes that spanned a young person’s life from “cradle-to-career.’’

At the core of this distinctly businesslike model is the “intense use of data at all stages of a young person’s development to measure progress, determine which service provider programs (such as tutoring, pre-school and after-school activities) were effective in helping children, and steer resources toward spreading those practices across existing programs and systems. ‘’

The Harvard analysis elaborates on the implementation of this model in Toledo and San Diego. But a look at the Strive Together website shows “emerging’’ or “sustaining” partnerships up and running in almost 50 communities and regions. And few states are more active in this movement than Minnesota, with official Strive Together chapters established or forming in five rural and greater Minnesota communities (Austin, Itasca County, Northfield, Red Wing and St. Cloud) and in the Twin Cities (called Generation Next) and led by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

The Star Tribune recently devoted a lengthy feature article on the success in Cincinnati, describing how businesses, foundations and nonprofits, parochial schools and public school districts, all collaborated to rather dramatically lift key indicators, from kindergarten readiness to high-school graduation and post-secondary completion rates. And not just for the large and mostly low-income black community, but also for the concentration of poor white children of Appalachian stock in the region. That experience holds great promise for Minnesota’s substantial population of low-income rural white households.

The Harvard Business School is interested in this movement for obvious reasons. Business leaders increasingly are finding common cause with social and racial justice advocates for closing the achievement and attainment disparities that burden low-income families and communities of color. Unless this growing part of our population does better, the private sector will have fewer customers, less demand, and a less productive workforce to supply the demand.

As the Star Tribune article points out, business leadership played an integral and perhaps the most important role in building the Cincinnati model. And the business involvement in the Minnesota partnerships — by large corporate entities such as General Mills, Target and the United Way — is substantial.

The Harvard paper noted in the Cincinnati experience that “while nonprofits and governments delivered the services to children, the business community played an important role in galvanizing community resources (including millions of dollars) and contributing expertise.” In Cincinnati and in many or perhaps most Strive partnerships, the United Way serves as a backbone organization or leading partner.

The Strive model is not the only and may not necessarily be the very best specific brand of cradle-to-career ecosystem that our kids and businesses need. Minnesotans have come together relatively well in some racially diverse rural communities, Willmar and Worthington for instance, with formal “integration collaboratives’’ that were established some two decades ago, as pointed out in a recent report by the national group Policy Link, and in a 2012 Growth & Justice report, “Whole Towns Coming Together for All Students.’’

But the philosophy behind this movement also is sound and conservative, as timeless as our Minnesota constitution of 1858, which put a high premium on a uniform and equal public education. Disparities threaten that sacred principle. And this restorative movement needs attention, energy, resources and more effort from both business and government, and the non-profit and philanthropic sector.

The 88th Legislature (2013 and 2014 sessions) got a good jump enabling this movement with its “World’s Best Workforce” K-12 funding and policy package. It specifically calls out a broader cradle-to-career responsibility, from kindergarten readiness to career readiness, and it requires districts to engage their communities and produce specific plans to reduce their gaps.

Strive or Strive-like partnerships and collaboration will help fulfill that cradle-to-career mandate to school districts. Business owners and managers could and should take the lead in launching and incubating these partnerships in dozens more communities, from Ada to Zumbrota. But they also need to stay humble, listen, and engage as partners rather than simply taking charge.

Jeff Edmondson, managing director of the national Strive effort, described in some detail an attitude of humility among business leaders that helped Cincinnati succeed: “Having a few business leaders involved from the beginning, who know there is no ‘silver bullet’ to improving

educational outcomes and who appreciate the complexity of this kind of work, helps tremendously to bring along their peers.’’

“We like to say that the partnership moves at the speed of trust,’’ Edmondson said in the Harvard paper. “The business community served as a critical accelerator when leaders stopped thinking about their role as bringing intelligence and money to the table, and instead saw their value as sharing their core expertise. Once they embraced and accepted that complexity, [they] learned to work within a collective impact approach rather than on stand-alone efforts.’’

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