Leadership Austin

Good, bad or ugly? Improving education with the "collective impact" model

Good, bad or ugly? Improving education with the "collective impact" model

Teacher and students in a classroom
Courtesy photo

Editor's note: CultureMap Austin partners with Leadership Austin — the region's premier provider of civic and community leadership development — in this on-going series of editorial columns meant to inform Austinites about issues facing our cityThe opinions of Leadership Austin alumni and faculty members are their own, and do not represent an official position of CultureMap or Leadership Austin.

When I ask audiences what adjective they use to describe the state of education, I tend to get responses like “tragic,” “urgent” or “grim.” Yet the reality is that, for almost every measure you can use, for almost any group of students, we have improved outcomes over the years. That’s true both in Central Texas and across the state as a whole. Really. 

So, how can it be that greater numbers of children are achieving greater education success yet our views of education are generally so negative? Because:

1. Our expectations are (and should be) much higher. It used to be “okay” to mask lower performance of our poor and minority kids in the averages and pretend they weren’t dropping out. After all, there were plenty of decent jobs that you could get without even a high school diploma. Today it’s almost impossible for anyone to get a living wage job without some post-secondary education.

2. While our student outcomes are getting better, we’re rapidly losing ground against other nations in today’s global economy. In fact, international comparisons put us between 21st and 25th out of 29 industrialized nations in math, science and problem solving. And the skills gap between where our students are versus the skills needed for future jobs is even greater than our competitive gap versus other countries.

Incremental change isn’t enough — instead we need systems change, at scale. No one school or college or district or nonprofit can do this alone. That’s why, in Central Texas, we have undertaken data-driven, cross-sector systems alignment in education — what many people are now calling “collective impact.”

What does this model — this way of creating different outcomes in education — entail?

  • Using objective data — rather than emotion or preconceived ideas — to make better decisions and drive action
  • Working regionally, across the entire cradle-to-career continuum, rather than looking for one “silver bullet” solution
  • Sharing practices across institutions and organizations who have not traditionally been measured and rewarded for this
  • Having a common agenda, based on shared metrics and targets, for the future we want to create
  • Building cross-sector, public/private partnerships to find the best solutions for our community
  • Investing in the long haul; it will take time to see the systems change needed for all our children to meet the expectations of our 21st century world

Does it work? Absolutely. Just a few quick examples:

  1. Working together, 11 school districts, four institutions of higher education and 10 community and industry partners have strengthened the STEM pipeline of students, with results that we believe are unprecedented in the nation. In just five years, we increased the number of students in focused secondary engineering and technology classes from 1,493 to 6,373 — growth of 430 percent! A ground-breaking longitudinal study by E3 Alliance showed that these students perform at higher levels and are enrolling in college in higher numbers than their matched peers. And the pipeline is far more diverse, with low income, Hispanic and female students growing at 1.5 to 2X the overall growth rate.
  2. Central Texas created the first student-centered, multi-domain standard for school readiness at Kindergarten in the history of the state. Based on this, we have completed multiple years of a comprehensive Kindergarten Readiness Study to determine how ready our students are for school and what factors are associated with their being ready. This study has been used by districts and legislators to support greater focus on early childhood education.
  3. We launched Missing School Matters — a regional campaign to increase student attendance, with a goal of returning $34 million in funding to area school districts. 35 Central Texas schools participated in a national attendance challenge — more than any other region in the country — and Stony Point High School in Round Rock was named the national winner. Our entire community can help in this effort. For ways to get involved see www.MissingSchoolMatters.org.

Incremental change is not enough for all of our students to succeed and our economic future to prosper. But by working collaboratively with an ambitious end in mind, we can and are creating real systems change.


In addition to being an alumna of the Leadership Austin Essential Class and a former Leadership Austin Board Member, Susan Dawson is a Texas entrepreneur, business and civic leader.  She founded and leads the E3 Alliance (for Education Equals Economics), a regional collaborative to increase economic outcomes by aligning our education systems to better fulfill the potential of every citizen. E3 Alliance has been recognized across the country as a unique model of objective and ground-breaking work in building systemic change for education. Ms. Dawson has led multiple technology firms and served as Chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Her many awards include being named Austin Under 40 “Austinite of the Year," Hero for Children by the State Board of Education, Austin Profiles in Power “Profile Leader," and the UT McCombs School “Trailblazer Award” for the distinguished woman alumni trailblazer in business and community. In 2011 the Austin Business Journal named Ms. Dawson one of “Austin’s 30 Most Influential” leaders who have shaped Austin’s economy and culture in the last 30 years. Ms. Dawson has a BS Cum Laude from Princeton University and an MBA with Highest Honors from The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.