Lessons from Building and Sustaining a Coalition for Education Improvement
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a group of elected officials from across the country who are interested in what it takes to build and sustain coalitions for education improvement. The lessons I shared are those that we, in Delaware, have worked our way through since the launch of the Vision 2015 plan in 2006. Developed by a broad coalition of stakeholders, Vision 2015 presented the organizing framework for so much of what the state is now doing through Race to the Top and the Early Learning Challenge. So, what have we learned that may be useful? These key ingredients have been fundamental to the effectiveness of Delaware’s coalition:
- Objective analysis of the problem: Produced in 2005, Rodel’s “Opportunity Knocks” report provided an objective, data-driven assessment of the state of public education in Delaware. We produced it intentionally without recommendations to avoid any perception of bias and to ensure we were all starting with the same information.
- Our coalition was intentionally very inclusive. We decided it was better to have potential critics within the tent, rather than having them pull at the tent poles from the outside. Twenty-eight Steering Committee members, 80 Work Group members, and hundreds citizens participated in focus groups and town halls.
- Having said that, because we wanted the process to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical, we intentionally did not include elected officials. We did include high-level appointees to gain their expertise and counsel: a representative from OMB, as well as the president of the state board of education and the secretary of education.
- We agreed to take the hottest political potato off the table (for Delaware, it was district consolidation); it was a non-starter that would have obstructed collaboration and drained energies from Day One.
- We engaged third-party, high-level, objective consultants who had no stakeholder interest: Cambridge Leadership Associates for facilitation and the Boston Consulting Group for data analysis and best practice research.
- We provided staffing (through Rodel) to ensure that follow-up tasks were tracked, meetings scheduled, notes taken, and next steps outlined.
- We provided shared experiences (site visits, retreats, meetings with content experts) to get everyone on same page and build personal relationships.
- We invested deeply in communications, producing briefing papers, a web site, e-newsletter, extensive collateral, and sponsoring events and forums.
- We cultivated flexible funding streams to seed and quickly incubate work that the public education system could not support; Rodel and the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee (both “c3” organizations) work together to channel funding to high-priority initiatives.
- All Steering Committee members agreed up-front to the threshold of accepting 80% of the recommendations; various stakeholders agreed/disagreed on specific recommendations, but there was a very high level of support for a large majority of the recommendations. 100% agreement would have compromised the outcome.
- Last, we learned about the importance of persistence and sustainability: of the original 28 steering committee members only 8 remain in their positions…we have needed to replace representatives and build the “bench” of future leaders.
In sharing these lessons, we must acknowledge that Delaware is fortunate in its small size, interconnections, and manageability. We can get things done more easily here than in larger states. Yet, although Delaware is small, we believe the same ingredients are necessary for any coalition regardless of whether the scale is local, district level, city level, or statewide.
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