Our Communities Must Become Educational Collectives


March 10, 2015


Jerry Colonna's blog post kicks off our March series on collective impact—an approach that mobilizes the community to form a long-term and permanent solution to a societal problem. Subscribe to our blog so you never miss a post.

As Oregon starts a new legislative session, I am encouraged that public education is a matter of such attention and importance. But, I am also reminded that Oregon’s school districts are expected to be able to do what legislators, clergy, businesses, and parents cannot do—that is, working largely by themselves to provide equal access and a quality education for all children. When an Oregon school has a low score on one of the many state or federal accountability measures, we don’t blame politicians, social service providers, or religious leaders. The usual assertion is that teachers, administrators, and school board members have failed their constituents.

I wonder, are our public schools so powerful that they can overcome the societal ills associated with poverty, lack of health care, violence, drug abuse, and other factors? Our track record over time is a great big no! (However, I readily acknowledge some notable and wonderful exceptions around the state.)

I worry when I hear pronouncements, such as all children will start kindergarten ready to learn, 100 percent of high school students will graduate, and all students will be reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. These are certainly worthy goals, but, all too often, they are left up to our public school staff members to deliver. Usually, the goals do not come with sustainable resources, they lack a proper professional-development component, and have impossibly short time frames. However, read on.

I am optimistic…. This blog is about hope for the future. But, I must reinforce my observations a bit more.

If we want to aim for student outcomes that are not predictable by individual zip codes in Oregon’s 197 school districts, we need many more inclusive strategies than we have had in the past.

In The Republic, Plato wrote about the perfect democratic state. One of the foundations of his writing centered on the treatment of all children. He said that every woman must see each female child as her daughter to nurture, to teach, and to love. And, that every male must embrace each male child as his own son to care for, to teach, and to love. Oregon’s public schools do not reside in Plato’s perfect democratic state. And, our inability to educate all of our children at a higher level is not as much about the lack of solutions or sustainable resources as it is about the inability for our citizens to truly see each child as their own. We talk about children and family values but do our actions over the last 20 years truly show up in the kind of enabling legislation necessary for the improvements needed? I think not. Our communities must become educational collectives.

When we look at school improvement, we are really dealing with societal improvement. Our school children reflect the sum total of the strengths and weaknesses that they have experienced in their communities. If their neighborhood school has a high rate of student drug abuse or violence or crime so does its community. The same is true for lack of role models, abject poverty and inadequate housing. We are beginning to understand that these problems did not start in schools; they started and reside in America’s communities. We have to strengthen communities as part of improving schools.

Educators want to join with partners in school improvement and move away from being scapegoats. They need community partners who will help end the separate and unequal access to high quality education. I believe help is on the way through collective impact, a strategy to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to collaborate on long-term solutions to deeply rooted community problems. It involves, but is not limited to schools, government agencies, social service providers, higher education, businesses, and political leaders.

More than 100 communities in our country are using this comprehensive, long-term approach instead of our preference for quick, decisive action and short-term, disconnected solutions. Collective impact promotes coordinated actions, sustainable resources and patience. It is about a common agenda that focuses on productive relationships between organizations and progress toward a shared vision of the future. It is a blueprint for a region to come together and discover new ways to collaborate and create superior results. The tagline of the collective impact effort in central Oregon is: Find your role, help students excel—we’re Better Together!

I am optimistic that through the collective impact approach, greater progress can be made on many educational issues. Communities that have moved from isolated efforts to shared responsibility and utilized the five conditions of collective success are showing promising results. Education Northwest recently published, Mobilizing Communities: Improving Northwest Education Through Collective Impact. I urge you to read it and think about whether your community is ready to take on this comprehensive approach to improving the education of Oregon’s students.