On Education, Strive Partnership Offers Useful Template

Anyone waiting for Washington to fix their problems is likely to be waiting for a long time. The news lately feels like some sort of conspiratorial plot to turn us all into anarchists, delivering a steady rebuke to the concept of effective government action.

Elevated joblessness rips at the American soul while Washington devotes itself to raising obscene amounts of campaign cash. The odds that a meaningful job creation initiative will emerge from the capital before November are roughly equivalent to those of Dominique Strauss-Kahn becoming pope.

But while the center of national power may be a void, creative people in myriad localities are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, forging innovative solutions to vexing problems tearing at their communities. In the Cincinnati area, an entity known as the Strive Partnership -– a fusion of about 300 local, non-profit, social service agencies, foundations, school districts, universities and private businesses -- has organized to prepare area young people with the skills needed to embark on successful careers.

Since coming into existence six years ago, the partnership already has produced dividends -- higher retention rates at participating universities and improved reading levels at local schools.

Young people need jobs, and area businesses need capable workers. Schools need effective strategies to increase their graduation rates. Social service agencies traditionally pursue distinct areas of focus, from boosting preventative health care to stemming gang violence. But before the Strive Partnership, all of these actors operated independently, with little coordination and no central database to highlight the problems that needed tackling most urgently.

"It was spray and pray, investing in a lot of stuff and hoping it works," says Jeff Edmonson, the partnership's former executive director, and now managing director of the Strive Network, a new entity exporting the Cincinnati model to other communities, including Boston, Houston and Seattle. "Investments were falling into a black hole in terms of educational outcomes. You would address third-grade reading and then your high school graduation rates would go down."

The principle behind the partnership is both elegantly simple and adaptable to local circumstances: Put concerned people in one room, agree upon statistically definable goals, and then coordinate action and spend the dollars to hit the targets.

"The ultimate goal is to see these outcomes consistently trend in the right direction," Edmondson says. "You are essentially creating infrastructure to make sure that investments are focused in the right areas."

But the significance of this success goes beyond the Cincinnati area, highlighting the sort of pragmatism and creativity that we need to draw on nationally if we are to have any shot at digging ourselves out of this formidable hole. Organizations like the Strive Partnership are an effective response, presenting a useful strain of resourcefulness, and an antidote to the paralysis of our times. Its existence flows from the same human impulse that created the federal institutions that now seem so feckless: When people with shared interests join together to pursue solutions to societal problems, those problems become more manageable, and the available resources more potent.

Regular readers of this column have divined that I am suspicious of anything that smells like a feel-good initiative for its own sake. I am dubious of supposed fixes to our underemployment epidemic -- from the Obama administration's faith in the innate bounce-back properties of the market, to the Republican notion that prosperity stems from handing out tax cuts to the ultra-rich.

I don't buy the oft-repeated canard that we can ride job training back to full employment, as if high unemployment were merely a mismatch between available skills and open positions. And I confess to being distrustful of philanthropy, which generally seems more like an exercise in public relations than a coherent strategy to address problems.

For all of these reasons, I am viscerally prone to questioning any organization that aims -- as the Strive Partnership does -- to elevating "every child, every step of the way, cradle to career." (Right, and after that, on to putting every retiree in a beachfront mansion, while delivering world peace for good measure.)

But cynicism never fixed a problem (not unless you work for Jon Stewart). Simply bemoaning the pitiful state of our politics and complaining about the hopelessness of these times is no solution. In the next few months, I'd like to use this space to explore promising efforts at confronting deep-seated problems –- first, efforts aimed at job creation -– in the hopes of identifying what might work on a bigger scale. I'd like to hear from you, if you have suggestions about what to spotlight.

The problem with the state of American life is not that we've become a nation of lazy dolts who have squandered our frontier legacy. It is not that we have become selfish, small-hearted and inured to the troubles afflicting our age (though you can get that feeling, if you look to national events to define us.) The problem is that we have been unable to mobilize our best ideas in the service of what can only be called the greater good. Our intelligence and decency have somehow been walled off from our political sphere.

But the more local you go, the less this feels true. The sort of public-private partnership they have forged in Cincinnati is no panacea, but it is more than something. And it is a crucial reminder that we do have people in our midst who have effective ideas about how to get the country back to work.

Energetic and passionate, Edmondson is inclined toward technocratic language. He distills most problems down to issues of metrics, as befitting someone sprung from the educational reform movement, with its emphasis on numerically based assessment of teachers –- sometimes ignoring the fact that teachers in low-income areas often function as social workers, with mere test scores failing to capture their impact.

In a recent TEDx Cincy talk, Edmondson notes how the Strive Partnership's database can tell from the minute that a child is born that both parents are working, flagging that some child care will be needed. Good enough, but in Ohio -- as in most states -- subsidized child-care programs have been slashed dramatically, relegating many low-income families to endless wait lists. Simply identifying a need is a very different thing from satisfying it.

Yet when I put this criticism to Edmonson, suggesting that this might be a case of his faith in the process masking the reality of scarcity, he offers up real life examples that challenge this characterization: When Ohio cut funds for low-income child care programs, the Partnership immediately recognized the need, and one key member -– the United Way –- stepped in with alternative funding.

But could the rise of public-private partnerships further weaken social faith in government just as we may need it most? Will the citizenry further embrace mindless tax-cutting and the dismantling of public education, taking heart that Bill Gates and the United Way can attend to life's problems?

Edmondson doesn't buy it, and let us hope that he is correct.

"When we're in this new normal when we know a dollar has to go further than it did before, we have to start thinking in a new way," he says. "We're not going to see people shirk their responsibility. We're going to see them wanting to get involved. In history, good ideas have stuck around, and typically they have stuck around because they have worked."

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