Collaboration:What Works

By Deborah L. Cohen — March 15, 1989 9 min read
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As more education and social-service professionals try to link their services to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children, a consensus is beginning to emerge on the types and characteristics of collaborative efforts that stand the best chance of succeeding.

Those with the greatest potential, the experts say, share a common core of elements.

They are “comprehensive and intensive,” in the words of Harvard University’s Lisbeth B. Schorr, author of Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage, and they give the child and his family an “easy entry point to a wide array of services.” Successful projects, she says, don’t ask participants to “negotiate a lot of hoops.”

At a conference sponsored by the National Association of State Boards of Education and the Johnson Foundation last spring, authorities from a number of fields outlined several target areas for such collaboration. They included early-childhood programs, tutorial and remedial help, before- and after-school care, family support, parent education, adult literacy, health and social services, and employment training.

According to Ms. Schorr, whose book is a study of successful interventions of this kind, programs that work typically involve a range of professionals--from nurses to teachers to psychologists--who function as a team and “build relationships of trust and respect” with children and families.

She and other experts stress that this type of early and intensive involvement can reduce the disadvantaged child’s potential for later problems.

And the same philosophy, they say, applies to families, who should receive support not only to overcome crises but to avert them.

“Instead of saying ‘we’ll help when the family has failed,”’ explains Frank Farrow, deputy director of children’s service policy for the Center for the Study of Social Policy, “our role is to be out there helping early.”

Model efforts also “cross longstanding bureaucratic and professional boundaries--often in nontraditional settings and in nontraditional hours,” Ms. Schorr adds.

To offer families the support they need to encourage their children, she says, professionals must be positioned to offer “24-hour-a-day” services, visiting parents at home and helping them work out solutions to everyday problems.

Success hinges on “showing up when the family is feeling the pain, rather than expecting the family to show up once a week to some distant office,” Ms. Schorr says.

Providing the ‘Bits and Pieces’

An example of such an approach is the work of John C. Rivera, a community organizer who was hired by the New York philanthropist Eugene M. Lang to be project coordinator for his first “I Have a Dream” program, which promised a college education to 60 Harlem 6th graders if they graduated from high school.

To give the children the kind of support that no financial incentive could provide, Mr. Rivera became personally involved in their lives, he says, meeting with teachers, getting to know social workers, and acting as a liaison between parents and community agencies. In addition, he recalls, “I made it my job to get there early enough to make sure they would take a shower, get dressed, and go to school.”

Mr. Rivera also set up community tutoring programs for the students, took them to movies and restaurants, and introduced them to people from various professions.

“These kinds of bits and pieces--while not that grandiose--are the bits and pieces that assist a child in keeping on track,” he maintains.

New Training and a ‘Fixer’

In the model described by Ms. Schorr, “No one ever says ‘it’s outside my job or jurisdiction”’ to perform a given task. But that is an approach, many say, that will require new modes of training.

“Sooner or later, all these collaboratives are going to have to train workers who know not only about schools, mental-health, juvenile-justice, and social-services programs, but are knowledgeable about kids,’' says Tom Joe, director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Until now, successful cooperative programs have generally employed a case manager who serves as a liaison between children and families and the various agencies providing services.

“A key person who knows both sides is really crucial,” explains Melanie Barron, who helped launch a student human-services collaborative in the Boston schools.

That person--whom Ms. Barron calls a “broker” or a “fixer"--can listen to the concerns of school and agency personnel and attempt to find a middle ground.

Political Support, Leadership Needed

Another key attribute of successful interagency alliances, those promoting them emphasize, is having strong political support.

“We have to elect to the highest offices in the land those who share a belief that these kinds of things are important,” says Commissioner of Education Harold Raynolds Jr. of Massachussetts.

Whether leadership comes from a state legislator, governor, department of education or social services, or a private agency, collaborative projects should give supervisors maximum flexibility to carry out project goals, Ms. Schorr maintains.

Leaders, she says, should allow workers to operate in a “protective bubble” that will enable them to exercise judgment “far beyond what is generally allowed in a typical large human-service agency.”

Foundations can play a key role, notes Theodore E. Lobman, vice president of the Stuart Foundations, by “underwriting the efforts of people who have the energy to trysomething new.”

Winning Local Support

But no one administrative arrangement or service setting fits every situation, experts agree.

“I have not found any place in which the success of the program and the willingness to cooperate was rooted in who took the lead,” asserts Janet E. Levy, director of the Joining Forces project for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Winning the support of communities and ensuring that programs are well coordinated at the local level is essential, she and other advocates contend.

Collaboration “has to start with people at the local level who represent an array of political and social interests,” says Milbray Wallen McLaughlin, an associate professor of education at Stanford University.

Policymakers have to be ready and able to respond, adds Esther Rodriguez, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, when members of the community ask, “What’s in it for me?”

Decisions about whether a school or other agency should host a collaborative project, Ms. McLaughlin says, should hinge on what services are offered, which agency can best provide them, and how the community responds. Policymakers should be “sensitive to community mores” in choosing project sites.

Superintendent of Education Richard A. Boyd of Mississippi notes, for example, that although school-based health clinics that distribute contraceptives may be effective in urban areas, they are less likely to be accepted in more conservative rural communities.

Others contend that schools may be less suited for programs involving young children than for those aimed at older, more independent students.

As long as the effort “develops new strategies to better serve kids that multiple agencies are serving in a fragmented way,” says Mr. Joe, “it doesn’t matter” which agency or agencies leads it.

Collaborative Mandates: Pro and Con

Some maintain that legal mandates are the best insurance for obtaining effective participation from various agencies.

Until collaboration is required, says Loren M. Warboys, a lawyer with the California-based Youth Law Center, agencies “will basically do firefighting kinds of things.”

In addition to federal laws that require interagency collaboration in planning services for handicapped infants and the homeless, some states have enacted bills mandating joint planning by various departments.

For example, says Ruth E. Randall, Minnesota’s commissioner of education, “it has become a common part of policy” for that state’s legislature to enact bills requiring the commissioners of various agencies to work together.

Some observers are leery of such mandates, however.

“If people don’t want to do it, they’ll find ways not to do it,” suggests Kenneth W. Haskins, a retired Harvard University lecturer and former co-director of the Principals’ Center there. Legislating collaboration may even foster divisiveness, he adds.

If an agency “goes to the state to complain” about a counterpart’s lack of cooperation, he speculates, “I don’t think that’s a very good start for collaboration.

Ms. Levy of nasbe maintains that “where the spirit is there, sometimes a mandate gets something started.” She adds, however, that realizing “the full potential” of collaboration rests on factors that cannot be mandated.

A 1987 policy paper drafted by the Council of Chief State School Officers called for individual learning plans for disadvantaged students, modeled along the lines of those used to serve handicapped youngsters under federal special-education laws.

The advantages of that model, Mr. Lobman observes, include “individual attention, parent involvment, eclecticism in arranging for services, continuous attention over time, and an attempt to make services coherent.”

But he also points to the complexities involved in defining the “at risk” population--and to the high cost of individualized services, which can reach $15,000 to $20,000 a year per child in special education.

And others cite “abuses” in the special-education approach that in some instances isolate and stigmatize the child.

“What you want are the best features of special education, but you don’t want the politics and you don’t want the stigma” of labeling children, Mr. Lobman says.

‘Seeding the Pot’

Political and pedagogical pitfalls aside, the development of successful collaborative programs will hinge, proponents say, on their ability not only to garner funding but to master the “fine art” of pooling and directing it to agreed-upon purposes.

A state’s provision of local grants for start-up funds, Ms. Levy notes, can stimulate collaboration. Merely submitting proposals for the funding, she says, fosters joint planning and goal setting.

“A little bit of money seeding the pot can really make a difference,” says the nasbe coordinator. “It gets people’s attention,” she suggests, and in many cases prompts them to “commit resources that far exceed” the state’s investment.

Nancy J. Johnstone, executive director of Youth Guidance, a Chicago nonprofit agency that has been operating school-based social services for two decades, attributes the success of her agency to its ability to fine tune the coordination of funds.

Because the agencies that employ various members of Youth Guidance’s school-based teams are “not terribly well coordinated” at the state level, she explains, “integrating the funding and integrating the services at the local delivery level is something we have really developed in a very ‘fine art’ way.”

Such coordination, she says, helps to ensure that services fit together coherently “from the kids’ point of view.”

But Ms. Johnstone also cautions against raising unrealistic expectations about how much a collaborative can accomplish. “We’re very careful in not overstating what we can do,” she stresses.

Human-services professionals who find fault with a school’s approach to a problem, says Ms. Johnstone, should “present an alternative and offer some assistance to solve it.”

As policymakers begin to identify the ingredients of successful programs, Ms. Schorr suggests, their challenge will be to adapt and modify existing structures.

“We can’t run our institutions in ways that make those characteristics impossible to sustain,” she says. “Once you learn the world is round, you don’t just add that to the information that the world is flat.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Collaboration:What Works


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