Data. Collaboration. Evaluation.
These are loaded words in the dialogue surrounding education outcomes. All can be weaponized in the competition for students, funding, and public perception.
The P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County (P16Plus) is not afraid. They recognize that if any progress is going to be made on a truly broad scale, then these are the tools they have to use. That decision, and the work that has come from it, has earned national recognition from the StriveTogether "Cradle to Career Network."
Rather than using data, collaboration, and evaluation as weapons, P16Plus uses them as mapping tools.
Anyone who has gotten serious about improving education outcomes has likely found themselves at some point staring at a spreadsheet of acronyms and numbers. Or several spreadsheets. To make matters more opaque, many times those spreadsheets might as well be written with different alphabets altogether. They are using different data, definitions, and sampling techniques. The result? Fragmented programs without the resources to take the same kid from pre-kindergarten through college with a cohesive strategy for achievement.
P16Plus used to be like that, when it was simply the P16 Council. It used to be a think tank where experts from different areas got together in their clusters (early education, college readiness, K-3, etc.) and brainstormed initiatives to improve their domain. But soon, they realized that this left significant gaps in their ability to be effective across students' entire education and into career readiness.
"We realized that higher ed was not talking to K-12, " said Dr. Shari Albright, Chair of Trinity University's Education Department as well as P16Plus's 4-12th grade initiative.
So they regrouped. They added the "Plus" to their name, signaling a new era of greater ambition.
"We said, 'How do we start thinking about the entire pipeline?'" said Albright.
For three years the council researched national models of collective impact, such as a non-profit organization that started in Cincinatti called Strive, which is now called StriveTogether.
Strive, both the organization and the process it helps facilitate, is an example of collective impact, the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants. - Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Collective Impact"
P16Plus joined the StriveTogether network of communities adopting this data driven, collaborative roadmap. Across the country many organizations are seeing the value of a systemic approach to education, eliminating turf battles between non-profits and districts, and, perhaps most impressively, agreeing on the definitions and metrics to be used in evaluating outcomes.
StriveTogether ranks its member organization based on their progress in achieving systemic change in their community. P16Plus recently achieved its "Sustaining" recognition, indicating that is serving as a backbone organization for a shared community vision of data-driven, measurable, scalable change for public education in Bexar County.
Right now P16Plus brings together 15 independent school districts and eight colleges and universities across Bexar County. Alongside those obvious stakeholders are nonprofits and businesses working to connect needs and resources. Also in the mix are data analysts working to provide constant evidence for what works.
The council sees themselves as facilitators, according to Judy McCormick, Executive Director of P16Plus. They help set goals, connect resources and measure results. For example, they're currently working with Harlandale ISD to create a STEM pipeline that will begin in early childhood education and carry students through to STEM careers.
To do this, everyone has to agree to a common vocabulary and metric for measuring success.
So when P16Plus says "graduation rate" they are referring to a four-year, on-time graduation rate. This, they have found is the definition that aligns them with the largest pools of nationwide data. Having a large apples-to-apples data pool allows them to evaluate their effectiveness more thoroughly.
When they come up with a definition or a metric, "all the experts are in the room," according to McCormick. The definition and metric are then agreed to by all partner organizations. Evaluation only works if Alamo Heights ISD and Edgewood ISD and SAISD and all the others are using the same definition when they provide their graduation data.
The key to success for P16Plus is the collaborative element. When data and evaluation are used to compete for recognition and funds, organizations will find the metric that flatters them the most. But, if the goal is to find out what works and then seek grants and other resources to bring results across the county, then there is nothing to fear from unflattering numbers.
Right now P16Plus is considering how to make data available to the general public. Their website has a series of reports available so that citizens and interested parties can see the results and advocate, volunteer, or donate accordingly.
*Featured/top image courtesy of P16Plus Council.