Cross Sector Collaboration Champions: How Collective Impact Network Directors Lead for Educational Equity
Myers Twitchell, Jenee Anita
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Collective impact, as a term and as a framework, has risen in popularity over the past six years as a set of guiding principles, processes, and measurement indicators aimed at addressing complex social issues. It has been employed perhaps the most by regional or city-wide efforts that aim to increase educational attainment, especially postsecondary attainment and education-to-workforce outcomes. Until very recently, little to no empirical evidence existed regarding the efficacy of the collective impact model nor the challenges or successes experienced by the practitioners attempting to implement the model with fidelity. A few recent empirical studies began to identify practical and theoretical gaps in the collective impact framework, including unrealistic preconditions and differences in practitioner experiences during implementation. The most common challenges to the collective impact framework identified by researchers have been its limitations for addressing systemic change (rather than more limited programmatic adjustments) and its failure to clearly identify and address basic causes of social inequality, such as racism and poverty. These limitations are an even bigger issue when considering the number of social issues to which the collective impact model has been applied, both within and outside of the field of education. This dissertation first synthesizes the myriad conceptual and theoretical frameworks for understanding social issue based collaboration efforts generated by researchers before the recent popularity of the collective impact framework. I then locate education-focused efforts within the boundaries of cross-sector collaborations. I next synthesize the various empirical and prescriptive models for measuring the outcomes of collaborative efforts, especially those that attempt to explain the earliest years of those efforts. The earliest years of collaborative efforts can be the most difficult to study because of a lack of formalized accountability and hit-or-miss administrative processes. Such an ambiguous context can mean that early indicators of success are amorphous and are rarely clearly defined ahead of time. This makes the work of champions (network leaders in this case) extremely difficult and fraught with key decisions for which there is little guidance or research. Given the ambiguous nature of these early efforts as well as the importance of network leaders in establishing collaborative norms during the first few years, this dissertation uses organizational learning theory and the integrative leadership framework to understand the practices and approaches network leaders apply to their work during those earliest years. Using information gained from a pilot study that followed the implementation of 14 collective impact networks in field during their earliest years, this qualitative, multiple case study examines the strategies and behaviors of collective impact network champions. This study explores the extent to which those champions—specifically the network directors—of cross-sector, education-focused, collaboration efforts employed collective impact strategies with fidelity, the challenges they faced in implementing the framework in the earliest years of enactment, and to what extent and the conditions under which leaders adapted the collective impact model or used all new approaches and in what ways they did so. Using integrative leadership and organizational learning theory to conceptualize the work of network directors allowed the author to understand the early implementation of a collective impact collaboration as a process of learning, sense-making, and grappling with information and evidence within an ambiguous context. This study provides detailed observations and findings from across nine different cases (among the original 14 in the pilot mentioned above) of collective impact network implementation, both confirming and deepening our understanding of the gaps and limitations of the collective impact framework and its guiding principles. By triangulating data from interviews, direct observations, and internal and external documents, I found that most collective impact network leaders experienced challenges regarding a shared sense of urgency among their networks’ member organizations. I found that those that had successfully maintained their networks beyond a second year of implementation had approached the need for a collective sense of urgency as a process of collective learning among network members rather than, as much of the literature says, as a precondition for network implementation success. Furthermore, I found that, as they dug into the process of collective learning, some network leaders became more data and measurement literate, and that those who had begun to see network progress had in fact begun to approach their use of data and measurement through a new lens. Specifically, a few successful network leaders engaged in community conversations about measuring changes to major systems or institutional policies and had moved past using only programmatic data. Finally, I found that successful maintenance and growth of network implementation that led to some level of systemic change occurred when the network leaders were able to identify and name, get members to understand and buy into, and then address social and economic injustices that were root causes of disparate education outcomes, such as racism and poverty. Evidence from the most successful networks indicated that the network leader had engaged other community leaders in conversations about how to increase representation of marginalized groups, about inequitable distribution of resources within the public education system, and about recognition of how dominant approaches to educational reform had, in fact, reinforced the inequitable status quo. These findings suggest that a modification of the collective impact framework is needed, given that it is very unlikely that the majority of social cause collaborations will completely reject use of that framework after a year or more into implementation of a network. Addressing the gaps in the collective impact framework by intentionally supplementing it with frameworks that address the underlying causes of inequity will be no easy task, but is a step that will more likely result in the kinds of social outcomes these efforts were designed to produce.
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