Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.”
When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems.
Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either.
Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate.
This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations.
Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations.
Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower.
So the U.S. Department of Education announced a competitive grant for a National Center in April 2019 to oversee a new network of 19 regionally based Comprehensive Centers, each accountable to a cluster of states. Officially launched October 1, the National Center is especially important now that state education agencies face new responsibilities and opportunities related to the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. The National Center will lean on strong relationships with each region to take lessons that have been isolated and siloed and make them transparent, accessible, and generalizable to a national audience.
This National Center work represents the largest, most widespread project Bellwether has ever been a part of, and is a testament to the fact that our synergy core value is a broader need in the education sector.
Bellwether is being brought on to help regional centers and state education agencies solve existing and emergent problems and help the National Center identify emerging trends across the country. We will also lead a national project to provide nonpartisan information about a range of education choice policies throughout the country, with a particular lens on rural and independent charter schools. Over the five years, we anticipate this project resulting in increased awareness of and access to educational options across the U.S., especially for underserved students. Finally, we’ve been asked to lend our extensive experience in field-based and digital communications to ensure the lessons, guidance, tools, and services of the vast Comprehensive Center network are widely known and used.
Bellwether will bring our “best of” to this work, lending talent from our Policy & Evaluation, Strategic Advising, and Operations teams. I will lean on my background in using evidence to guide the decision-making of policymakers and practitioners. My colleagues Katrina Boone and Eleisha Nelson-Reed, Associate Partners on Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation and Strategic Advising teams (respectively), will lean on their collective 30 years of experience in K-12 education, working within state education agencies, school districts, and the nonprofit space, to design and facilitate a range of collaborative adult learning experiences focused on common challenges across states and regions. And Jeremy Knight, Bellwether’s Communications and Marketing Manager, will capitalize on his digital communications savvy to amplify the work within and across the Comprehensive Centers to ensure lessons are raised up, shared out, and finding their audiences.
As a growing but still relatively small organization, the opportunity to move what Bellwether has learned into new spaces and learn from leaders, partners, and educators across every geographic region of this country is irresistible. We look forward to taking what felt like a small, yet potent idea (“synergy”) to a national platform through this work. You can learn more about the Comprehensive Center Network here.