Good Coffee Won’t Cut It – A Failing Forward Story from Portland, Oregon

Posted on July 31, 2014 in Media Coverage

The following appeared in the StriveTogether July 2014 eNewsletter.


Our Collaboratives are big. Like, really big. (Or at least they were.) In our conversations with StriveTogether’s Teri O’Brien she would often take a deep breath and patiently say things like, “You know, your Collaboratives are big. Like, really big.”

What can we say? Portland, Oregon is the is the City of Roses, but it’s also known as the City that Loves to Meet. Call it civic engagement. Call it community spirit. Whatever it is, put on a big pot of locally roasted, organic, fair trade coffee and we are THERE. All of us. Ready to talk it out.

Sadly, our gift of gab has not translated into real solutions for our kids. Particularly our kids of color and those in poverty. And we know it, and we don’t like it, and so a cross-sector, cross-cultural group of leaders agreed on a new vision and a new way of doing business. We called it All Hands Raised.

Leaders were convened. Goals were set. Priorities were adopted. And the all-call rolled out across the community: “It’s a new day and we’re going to get it right this time!” And they showed up. Go figure, right? We launched four Collaboratives and meetings regularly drew 50 to 80 people. One topped out at more than 200 dedicated souls.

Mentors and moms; pastors and politicians; advocates and academics; superintendents, CEOs, educators, foundations, youth, you name it. They were there. And the coffee was good. And thankfully the process was good this time too. Continuous Improvement rigor was the name of the game: establish a Charter; agree on a common measurable goal; design an Action Plan; get moving.

And people moved…just not necessarily in all of the ways that we – or they – really wanted to. People shuttled from our meetings back to their offices and to compile research on best practices. They combed through education data to find schools that were “beating the odds” in areas like chronic absenteeism – and they interviewed all the right players at those schools to uncover their secret sauce. There were literature reviews, stakeholder interviews, toolkits, and inventories. And it was all good. It just took a long time. Too long, really. And we were all a little Process Drunk.

Each month we would boldly unveil a new matrix or the fresh findings from our latest focus group. It was all color coded in pleasing shades of blue and green. But people felt frustrated and stuck. Some walked away. Others sat at the edges of meetings and whispered things like “Here we go again.”

Portland, Oregon was hungry. Every one of us – the schools, the funders, the nonprofits, and certainly the backbone. We wanted real action. Try it, measure it, improve it – and get those improvement cycles going on a weekly and monthly basis – not yearly.

Enter Teri O’Brien from StriveTogether. She flew out and knocked our heads together like an auntie who’s patience has worn thin. “Break up these huge Collaboratives, narrow your focus, and GET TO WORK!” We listened. It was a change we all wanted to make and we just needed the roadmap – plus a good Midwest kick in the pants to shake up the Portland Process.

We got to work right away. We started with some tough conversations with partners who loved their big groups and their slower pace. But we moved through it as a community and the change was swifter and more definitive than any of us expected. Six months later, we’re moving – really moving. Here’s a snapshot of where we are today, after we pushed our “Restart button.”

  • Six demonstration schools across six school districts have launched attendance teams and rolled out a new set of common strategies and supports. We mapped their data month-to-month and mined the data for lessons. In one case, it turns out that the secret to improved attendance at Oregon’s largest high school was Costco muffins.
  • On another front, we trained more than a dozen nonprofits on social-emotional measures, with a narrow focus on the concept of “growth mindset”. They’ll be implementing shared practices this summer and using a common assessment tool to measure growth.
  • Eight demonstration schools are implementing a shared kindergarten transition strategy, including summer programs, family outreach, and common measures. They zeroed in on the issue of late kindergarten registration which was setting too many children behind from day one – and together they increased their on-time kindergarten registration by 14 percentage points.
  • We passed Board-level Equity Policies in four school districts and now we’re working with our superintendents and leaders of colors to confront the issue of school discipline and its disproportionate impact on kids of color.
  • And finally the investments have begun to shift – flowing in the direction of outcomes and projects grounded in continuous improvement.
    • We worked with Oregon’s Department of Human Services which has now embraced the outcome of student attendance and agreed to relocate six of its case managers to be housed within each of our six attendance demonstration sites.
    • Our local foundations are shifting from asking nonprofits “IF” they’re involved in All Hands Raised, to probing them on “HOW DEEPLY” they’re involved in All Hands Raised and how their outcomes are demonstrating that.
    • And based in part on our longest-standing Collaborative, Ninth Grade Counts, the state department of education for the first time has proposed a shift to outcome-based funding, rewarding districts an extra $350 for every 9th grader that they support with summer programs and other services – only if they help those students earn the six credits they need to stay on track to graduation.

We have a long way to go. But there is no doubt that we are Failing Forward as we replace Portland Process with Continuous Improvement. And the coffee is still good.