07/21/2014 04:08 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

An Emergent Approach to School-Community-Family Partnerships

The recent article on Strategic Philanthropy for A Complex World explored the idea of an "emergent approach to philanthropy." It evoked several thoughts about the work to connect family, school, and community to help young people succeed that my colleagues and I have been doing for nearly 25 years.

First, the authors recognize that improving student achievement is neither simple nor complicated but rather complex. "Complex problems," they note, "are dynamic, nonlinear, and counter-intuitive. They are the result of the interplay between multiple independent factors that influence each other in ever-changing ways."

The authors suggest that student achievement is a complex problem, "influenced by myriad interdependent factors such as school leadership, economic and family circumstances, peer dynamics, role models, and even nutrition." Leaders in the community schools movement have long known that attending to all these factors is necessary to help prepare students for college, career, and citizenship. Regrettably, education reform has been driven by a far too narrow construct focused primarily on standards, testing and accountability, and teacher quality. That's important when done well but just not enough to combat the complex challenges we face in educating our young people.

Paul Barton of ETS warned in a paper on The Hard Facts of Education Reform, "We tend to put considerations of family, community, and economy off-limits in education-reform policy discussions. However, we do so at our peril." To suggest that educating students in poverty is anything other than a complex challenge is to avoid the hard facts.

Second, the authors defined an emergent approach as a strategy that "accepts that a realized strategy emerges over time as the initial intentions collide with and accommodate to a changing reality." The graphic for this concept starts as a straight line and then loops upwards as the strategy confronts reality. It immediately brought to mind the spiraling process of change that was outlined in Together We Can: Crafting a Profamily System of Education and Human Services in 1993.

The spiral in Together We Can underlined that the challenge local leaders faced was "to develop a process of working together that is flexible enough to allow adjustments to new circumstances, while staying focused on long-term goals...a picture of this process looks much more like a spiral than a straight line. Straight lines can stop dead when they run into roadblocks or ricochet off obstacles in unintended directions. A spiral, however, develops a process of working together and loops back on itself to gain strength."

The spiral (TWC, P. 21) also described a five stage process of change: getting together, building trust and ownership, developing a strategic plan, taking action, and going to scale. It built on conflict resolution and negotiations research, as well as the experience of education and human services collaboratives.

The emphasis on trust in an emergent approach reflects our own understanding. We knew that the hardest part of bringing different people and institutions together was getting people to trust one another--to believe that individual interests would be better served by working together rather than independently.

We advocated trust building activities--jointly reviewing data, visiting promising programs, listening collectively to families and neighborhood residents and involving them in decision-making processes, and creating safe spaces to address tough challenges of race and power. We made clear that trust building was an ongoing part of the collaborative enterprise.

It also soon became clear that "going to scale" was not a discrete stage but rather a developmental process of broadening work to engage new partners and deepening that work so that there were changes in policy, practice and mindset necessary to produce sustainable change in the way systems and institutions operate. And as the Coalition for Community Schools, which grew in part from Together We Can, thought about scale, we realized that scaling to get better results for young people was our North Star--the compass that guides our way--as the writers on strategic philanthropy note.

The community schools work led us to develop resources and tools that reflect three other elements of an emergent approach: strategy setting frameworks and processes that give people a clear sense of where they will be heading without suggesting a step-by-step process; new organizational structures and systems at both the site (schools in our case) and systems level; and leaders who build a culture of joint-problem solving.

Leadership remains the most critical capacity issue. We need leaders who understand what John Gardner said in On Leadership 20 years ago, "In a tumultuous swiftly changing environment, in a world of multiple colliding systems, the hierarchical position of leaders within their own systems is of limited value because some of the most critical tasks require lateral leadership--boundary crossing leadership--involving groups over whom they have no control." Without leaders who are willing to cross boundaries, the change and the results we seek, regardless of the strategy, will continue to elude us.

Thinking about the complexity of education reform through the lens of an emergent approach should give pause to everyone working to change public schools and should push us to carefully assess whether we are heading in the right direction.