Supporting Transformative Partnerships

I have been thinking about and working on building and supporting partnerships for the last decade. In this time, I have developed my understanding of the elements of different types of partnerships and collaborations that define them. So, what are the considerations for characterizing organizational partnerships?

Transformative partnerships are reflected in inter-relationships that are collaborative, not just cooperative. Recurring themes in productive partnerships are common needs, respect, communication, flexibility/agility/resilience between organizations. There are several dimensions of quality to consider in partnerships, including partnership composition, organizational structure, operational guidelines, & qualities of the partnering relationships.

There are several questions that gauge the quality of partnerships around mutuality, trust, and leadership.

Mutuality and trust: Do the goals and objectives of the partnership address mutual needs across partners? What are the perceptions of trust across partners? What steps have partners taken to build trust? What is the nature of most interactions between partners? How respectful is the partnership to differences in cultural and organizational norms, values, and beliefs? How transparent are the operations?

Leadership: Who are the leaders of the partnership? Who led the development of the initial partnership? Are there one or more persons taking leadership? What are their roles? Is there participation from the top levels of the organizations?

But what do partnership at different stages look like?  Beginning stages are represented by articulated plans but no actions. The element is “on the radar” but there is no substantive progress toward effective implementation. The quality of the plans is inconsistent. Outcomes are not possible because no plans have been put into action. Plans may not provide adequate foundation for full implementation. Emerging stages are represented by clear and articulated plans with some initial actions setting the stage for implementation, but not enough substantive activity to establish implementation. The quality of the articulated plan may be very strong or may have some apparent weaknesses amidst other strengths. Outcomes are not imminent or predictable because high quality implementation has not reached a minimum threshold. Developing stages show clear, strong implementation is in place, although there are corrections for barriers, changes to plans or consistency/satisfaction across stakeholders might be mixed. Positive outcomes are evident but all goals are not fully realized or not on track. Transformative stages show such a clear, strong enacted plan. It can be considered a model for others to use. Positive outcomes associated with the partnership seem inevitable or highly predictable.

See my presentation for the Washington Evaluators for an expanded conversation about how evaluation practices can support transformative partnerships!

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Ignite! AEA 2012

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The Condition of Education 2012

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) have released the Condition of Education 2012 report! There are some interesting trends. I have highlighted a few:

  • Enrollment is up, especially for minority groups.
  • Racial gap for poverty persists for black students and grows for hispanic students
  • Expenditures per student rose 46% (average $10,995) but capital outlay did not outpace interest on school debt.
  • Reading outcomes were generally level, math outcomes increased across the board.
  • Math enrollment increased for high school students.
  • Dropouts declined to 7% (from 12%) between 1990-2010.
  • Post secondary enrollment is up 37%, Bachelor’s degrees awarded are up 33%. Racial gap widened for black and hispanic students as compared to white students.
  • STEM degrees are level at 5% of undergraduate degrees.

So, we’re spending more money but perhaps not as effectively to address the greater needs our students have in terms of high risk factors for failing in our public school system. The math gains are noteworthy but progress is painfully slow as our industry workforce needs in STEM continue to outpace students graduating with degrees.

It will be interesting to see how the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and the new assessment systems (PARCC and SmaterBalance) contribute to progress for our current students.

Access the full report at

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STEM is in the air!

What an exciting month I’ve had working with various groups in the state of Illinois! This month at the Mathematics and Science Partnership conference in Illinois I had the pleasure of hearing more about federal initiatives as Stephen Pruitt discussed the Next Generation Science Standards ( and Jere Confrey discussed the implementation of Common Core Math Standards ( In conjunction with thinking about standards, I also was intrigued to hear the updates on the PARCC ( and Smarter Balanced ( performance assessments that are slated to pilot during the 2012-2013 academic year for full implemetnation in 2014-2015.

Although the reauthorization of ESEA appears to be in perpetual limbo, clearly the field is marching forward on some very important initiatives. An exciting intersection of STEM, Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards is the Perkins Career Cluster and Programs of Study ( As educators and reformers have worked to bring to scale the implementation of instruction where students are given opportunities to use the tools of STEM disciplines to solve authentic problems, the Career Clusters provide an excellent conceptual framework to organize and shape the secondary education experience for our nation’s high school students. Alignment of secondary curriculum with the career clusters provides students with a path through their high school education that is more purposeful, provides opportunities for collaboration with local industry, and access to technology in real-world experiences.

The key to the successful transition from the traditional high school model to a rigorous STEM oriented high school requires leaders to build and sustain collaborative relationships with local industry, transition staff from isolated departments to active professional learning communities, and plan with all relevant stakeholders (e.g., students, parents, faculty, industry) for the structural changes in policies and curriculum to support a new way of operating at the secondary level.

Of course, the reforms at the secondary level will provide a roadmap for the needed reforms and articulation at the elementary and middle school levels. Illinois has kick-started these reforms with the policy infrastructure provided by through the Race to the Top STEM Learning Exchanges ( and Illinois Worknet ( It will be exciting to see how the initiative unfolds in Illinois and nationally as the critical need for STEM workforce development has never been more evident (

What an exciting time to be an educator!

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Interview with Evidence Soup

Here is a recent interview I completed with Evidence Soup. Check out the other interviews for an interesting look at how different evaluators think about data.

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Supporting Innovation

Hello! I am back from a short hiatus where I was graced with the opportunity to read the biography of John Atanasoff, The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, written by Jane Smiley (2010). John Atanasoff was one of what Smiley calls the “digital pioneers” who blazed the trail for the blessing and curse that is the current computer.  Smiley tells the story of how mathematicians and scientists from all over the globe worked to solve computing problems in their respective fields. Spurred by World War II, these pioneers overcame a variety of intellectual, economic, institutional, and social barriers to ultimately achieve a breakthrough that without a doubt has changed life as we know it.

Aside from the interesting story of how these scientists worked to achieve these breakthroughs in computing, this book also brought to mind a series of questions for me related to our own field of education.

Nurturing innovation

Using the platform of Nancy Andreason’s Creative Brains (2006) to examine John Atanasoff, Smiley describes how some of the most important breakthroughs came in a period of mental rest. In short, brain research shows how innovation and creativity happens — but not when we are intensely grappling mentally with a problem whose solution is evading us. Our memory just doesn’t work that way to build neuron pathways needed with innovation.

So here’s the question — how are we nurturing this with our AP/IB-packed extra-load recess-malnourished schedules? Who has the nerve to suggest these kinds of breaks much less test different models to take our mentally exhausted students down a new path? Remember Theodore Sizer and Horace’s Compromise (1984)? The concepts of coaching, constructivism, and student-centered instruction are now common-place. Student inquiry is also becoming part of the regular dialogue of the 21st Century schools. However, the institutions that nurtured Horace’s Compromise are very much in place with very little modification. Are these the vehicles to deliver the promises of the 21st Century student? Are we spitting in the ocean with our intense focus on the teacher level professional development without really deconstructing the system that has been at the heart of our problems? Do our current models for comprehensive reform go far enough to create a foundation with agility and responsiveness we need for our students? As Smiley puts it, are we giving our students “license to be weird” or are we stifling noncomformity by the very nature of our institutions and thus stifling innovation and creativity?

The dollars of innovation

Another interesting twist in Anastanoff’s story relates to the funding he did (and didn’t) receive in the process of overcoming the fundamental theoretical and mechanical barriers to the computer. His work was not backed by large grants — many times competing (and unsuccessful) alternatives were supported instead. However, this reality was at the root of his thoughtful progress. He frankly couldn’t afford to squander the opportunities he was given. (By the way, this is similar to the story of the Wright Brothers – their failed competition was heavily funded by a government grant).

So, in this world of grant-funded education research, are we good stewards of our opportunities? Does our grant system require the kind of accountability and investment from our funded partners that brings the committment needed to capitolize on the resources? Are we perpetuating mediocrity with our grant system or funding innovation? What policies and systems are needed to nuture rather than bureaucratize the process of investing in the public good through education? For instances, Smiley’s book emphasizes how the Land Grants for higher education paved the way for providing Antanasoff access to education. Are we thinking about the most effective financial models for supporting innovation in public education? What are the “Land Grant” opportunities that we are missing because we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Leadership for innovation

Another theme in Smiley’s account of Antanasoff’s professional life highlights the critical (and critically short-sighted) decisions made by leaders at various higher institutions along the way. Missed opportunities for patents, for grants, for hiring promising talent litter the path to realizing the dream of the computer. This brought to my mind my own experiences with Presidents, Provosts, and Deans throughout my career and it occurred to me that I haven’t done a lot of thinking about accountability systems and models for our higher education leaders. What are the standards and models for agile, responsive, collaborative, effective leadership? What are the career trajectories of these leaders and what kind of preparation is needed to cultivate a leader who promotes and fosters excellence and innovation educationally, administratively, and institutionally? How does an institution create an environment to support the leadership needed?

So, from my mind to yours, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Supporting High Quality Programs – Program Coherence

My colleague, Jim Salzman, inspired me to write this blog about program coherence. As part of my work with the Illinois Mathematics and Science Partnership, I developed a short seminar on the issues of logic models, implementation fidelity, and program coherence. This conversations targets program coherence.

Fred Newman, BetsAnn Smith, Elaine Allensworth, and Anthony Bryk co-authored an excellent summation of the issues related to program coherence to guide school policy (Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2001, They outline two key issues related to program coherence: 1) Too many unrelated, unsustained improvement programs; and 2) Scaling up beyond current participants to more fully incorporate the attitudes, knowledge and norms. Eleven years later, I still see local grant programs realized as some kind of educational practice soup kitchen. The fiscal agent (whether it be a regional office of education, a state board of education, or a federal program) hands out the resources, the district feeds the few teachers who are participating, then continues on with no interest or capacity to fully realize the potential of the program.

What are the policies at the federal, state, and local level that perpetuate this clearly ineffective implementation model? How can stakeholders provoke change in such an entrenched system? I propose that minimally, evaluators working with districts can “slay the beast” locally, if not nationally. Here are some practical steps to consider:

1) At the proposal writing stage, encourage your clients to incorporate collaborative activities that create meaningful connections between the grant work and the existing improvement and accountability initiatives.

2) Encourage clients to go beyond the “Report Card Needs Assessment” to hold at least one short meeting (virutally or face-to-face) to get stakeholder feedback on their needs as well as how this new initiative can complement and even support existing goals. Help them draw the connections between full participation and alignment with existing requirements.

3) Build in formative communication to stakeholders into the evaluation framework — make stakeholder participation matter to the progress of the grant.

There are often many untapped resources for aligning common goals locally as well as with state accountability requirements. The better informed stakeholders at all levels–from the classroom, to the district office, to the community — the more leverage and momentum for sustained improvement your grant will have.

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Welcome to my blog. When considering the start-up of these posts, I was really attracted to the idea of communicating with my peers regularly, but informally. Often, our work restricts our contact to the business of the day or the brief encounters at national conferences. The conversations with my colleagues are always valuable to my professional life and I hope this blog serves as a platform to continue (and expand) our dialogue. While I am initiating these topics, I hope they serve as a tool to promote and support our community.

Please share your comments on my posts!

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Supporting High Quality Grant Programs – Identifying Key Components of PD

This blog comes courtesy of a recent black-out of technology at my office. No internet, no technology. Just the rather daunting stack of journals that I have yet to read, so for that, I am eternally thankful for the storm!

In my rather large stack of Educational Researcher journals, I found an awesome resource by Laura Desimone (Educational Researcher 38(3): 181-199, 2009) that highlights several critical features of successful professional development:

1) Focus on content knowledge
2) Active learning by participants (e.g., observation, interactive feedback, participant-led discussions) with limited lectures
3) Coherence of knowlege with teacher beliefs
4) Duration of at least 20+ hours per semester
5) Collective participation to achieve a critical mass from the same department, grade, school, or district.

Dr. Desimone has a focus on policy to increase teacher effectiveness — — her work is definitely a great resource!

Of course, I have reduced a thoughtful article to five points, but they are very much the core of what, as an evaluator, I can work with my clients to incorporate into their programs, timelines, and logic models to inhance the impact and sustainability of their initiatives.

What has been your experience with these elements? In my work, I can see that some of these are apparent and prescribed by federal program guidelines (like a focus on content), while others are left much more to the design of the local program. What is nice about these areas is that they do not complicate an already rich program narrative — rather they provide the needed scaffolding to plan for the implementation, support, and recruitment decisions that are key to any management plan. What have your experiences been?

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