The Book of Hope

By Nancy Zimpher

 

Working together, good people are changing the world.

In his new book Reclaiming the American Dream: Proven Solutions for Creating Economic Opportunity for All,[1] Ben Hecht spotlights efforts that are successfully addressing some of the country’s most pressing issues: meaningful employment, economic empowerment, impactful civic involvement, education that works. 

But this book is so much more than a public policy study. It’s a recipe for hope.

Organizations that come together, focus on a common agenda for social change, and use shared measurement-of-progress tools are achieving remarkable and sustained success. The power of collective impact is on display in each example in Hecht’s book, showcasing how dedication to the use of best practices and a strategy of continuous improvement is growing efforts that are making lives better.

I like to believe that Hecht put the chapter on education reform — my passion — first because it is the most important. Creating good jobs that are available to more people, stimulating homeownership to increase wealth, making sure everyone has access to information, and opening pathways to greater civic participation of course are vitally important in today’s society. An excellent education, however, most certainly is key to all of that.

 

Each of the education reform examples in Hecht’s book emphasizes how groups and organizations that typically work separately can better achieve the change they long for by tearing down their silos, joining their talents, and tackling challenges together.

 

Each of the education reform examples in Hecht’s book emphasizes how groups and organizations that typically work separately can better achieve the change they long for by tearing down their silos, joining their talents, and tackling challenges together.

Getting kids better prepared for college means having colleges collaborate with high schools in ways that ensure courses are really “college prep” and are available to every student, and that juniors and seniors in high school have greater access to college-level courses, including credit-earning courses. The Pathways in Technology Early College High (P-TECH) School in New York City is a great example of this: a partnership of the City University of New York, the New York City Department of Education, and technology giant IBM is succeeding in giving more students the skills they need to be employed and successful in high tech industries.

Georgia State University, among its other remarkable successes (including dramatically reducing its troubling “summer melt” phenomenon), has created a partnership program between professors and first-generation and at-risk students where freshmen serve as research assistance and professors serve not only as academic mentors but as social ones, too. On watch for any warning signs of struggles, professors steer students to the additional resources and supports they need that very first semester. This and other initiatives has GSU graduating 1,700 more students each year than just five years ago and, as Hecht notes, “GSU became the only national university at which black, Hispanic, first-generation, and low-income students graduate at or above the rate of the overall student body.”[2]  

College for America began a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University to get companies to allow and incentivize their adult workers to take college courses and earn degrees, certificates, and advanced degrees. The result? Literally hundreds of employees in numerous companies who are now climbing rapidly up the corporate ladder with new skills, empowering both themselves and their organizations.

I was thrilled to see that StriveTogether, an organization I co-founded, is the subject of the fourth chapter in Reclaiming the American Dream. Year after year, children fall out of the cradle-to-career education pipeline at every major intersection. At StriveTogether we’re using the power of collective impact to fundamentally change that system and plug those leaks. What started as a data-driven examination and improvement effort of kindergarten readiness programs in Cincinnati has spread to coordinated efforts in 69 sites across the country, with initiatives targeting early grade reading capabilities to improving college completion and multiple key indicators in between.

As a result of the successful efforts of this national network, a half-dozen communities across New York State have been applying this theory of action locally. The state’s Cradle to Career Alliance sites are banding together community organizations with a renewed dedication to fixing all different parts of the education pipeline.

 

At the Rockefeller Institute of Government, we’re designing a statewide longitudinal data system that will link together information across the early-childhood education, K-12, college, and workforce sectors. This system will help us better measure what programs and policies are working and what parts of the education pipeline we still need to fix.

 

Fundamental to the success of each one of these efforts is the effective use of data. Hecht emphasizes that education data are “available from more sources (both public and private), about more things (from…student performance to…skill needs of employers), and more frequently than ever before in history.”[3] We all now have to use that data, and use it in the right way.

At the Rockefeller Institute of Government, we’re designing a statewide longitudinal data system that will link together information across the early-childhood education, K-12, college, and workforce sectors. This system will help us better measure what programs and policies are working and what parts of the education pipeline we still need to fix. What teacher preparation programs are in turn producing the best student learners? Are students who receive need-based tuition assistance in college improving their economic mobility by finding good-paying jobs? Are early-childhood social and educational programs resulting in better high school graduation rates for children who participate?

Linking data together like this forms the basis for collaborative problem-solving across institutions, government agencies, and organizations. It provides the type of data-based information that fuels successful public policies and programs. It sparks the type of responsible inquiry that leads to improvements in people’s lives.

The transformation we need takes strong and visionary leadership. It takes organizations of all types — and the people in those organizations — to come together and coordinate their skills to create a powerful collective impact that stops at nothing short of achieving audacious goals. It takes an awful lot of hard work.

But in the end, as Ben Hecht has shown in Reclaiming the American Dream, when we do this we achieve meaningful and lasting change. We make lives better. We create success stories that reverberate from generation to generation.

We give everyone a reason to hope for more.

 

Nancy Zimpher is a senior fellow and founder of the Center for Education Pipeline Systems Change at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, and a professor at University at Albany.

 

NOTES


[1] Ben Hecht, Reclaiming the American Dream: Proven Solutions for Creating Economic Opportunity for All (Brookings Institution Press: Washington D.C., 2018).

[2] Ibid., p.29.

[3] Ibid., p.58.

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