It is hard to argue against a group of disparate organizations working together to solve a longstanding problem. It suggests a collection of positive behaviors: joint identification of a challenge, consensus that it must be solved, a willingness to sublimate parochial interests for a greater good, and cooperation for the sake of others. Most importantly, it might actually increase the likelihood of success.

It is hard to argue against a group of disparate organizations working together to solve a longstanding problem.

This is the feel-good stuff of “collective impact,” a popular and growing approach to our most formidable and tangled societal puzzles. John Kania and Mark Kramer, both of consulting firm FSG, provide a clear definition and tight and persuasive argument for it in a recent article.

It is more than a consortium or a coalition. The lanes are narrower and the bonds are stronger. They write:

Collective impact (is) 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.

The lion’s share of their article is dedicated to describing the elements of that last sentence, which they call the “five conditions of collective success.” Most of their examples come from Strive, a nonprofit seeking to improve student achievement in greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. If you’re not familiar with Strive, think Harlem Children’s Zone. They’re not identical, but they are consanguineous.

I’m all in favor of activities that help disadvantaged kids. With few deviations, I’m focused on outputs—do good work, and I like you. (A building block of my new book is near disregard for which types of organizations run urban schools—what I call “sector agnosticism”—as long as their schools are great.) So if “collective impact” works, terrific. Sign me up.

Kind of.

My concern is that by running headlong into multi-sector collaborations and, as a potential consequence, believing or arguing that this is the only way to close the achievement gap, we are playing into the hands of the reflexive defenders of the education establishment, those who argue that we’ll never solve education until we solve poverty, that we can’t hold urban schools accountable for results because kids show up for class with so many disadvantages that are beyond the control of educators.

A strong move toward collective impact is the tacit concession that schools are only part of the solution.

In other words, a strong move toward collective impact is the tacit concession that schools are only part of the solution; ergo, we need to decrease our expectations for what urban schools can accomplish; ergo, we’re joining the construction crew of those building a shield around the grown-ups and public institutions assigned to, but failing to, well-educate poor kids.

Worse, if we widely disperse responsibility for the education of kids—for example, say in one city, five sectors and seventeen different organizations are part of the “collective”—then no one is really responsible. So if the effort fails, everyone either scatters or points fingers elsewhere. The buck stops nowhere.

I recently made this point in a group discussion with some really smart people. A few were incredulous. They thought that admitting the need for a multi-front war conceded nothing of the sort. Such an approach is simply wise.

I wasn’t convinced. I could still imagine a reformer-led collective-impact strategy being met with I-told-you-so-smirks from the poverty-is-everything crowd.

I later expressed my hesitations to one of my brilliant Bellwether partners and a colleague of Kania and Kramer. They both felt my pain. Their response, oversimplified, was, “Yes, we need to be careful but we should proceed with collective impact nevertheless. The key is believing and then repeating publicly that engaging many partners doesn’t absolve an organization from its core responsibilities.”

I’m cautiously supportive of that position. There are enough high-performing, high-poverty schools now that we can feel confident that schools can make the difference in the lives of underserved kids and that thousands and thousands of schools could be doing much better.

Maybe—and perhaps there is way too much optimism here—this is an opportunity for some kind of détente between the two factions. Urban school districts and your bevy of defenders: Take responsibility for the academic achievement of your kids and stop making excuses. Reform crowd: Pursue collective impact to help these schools accomplish their goals.

Hope springs eternal.

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