The Challenge and Promise of Education Partnerships

August 15, 2011

Improving education means finding solutions to complex and entrenched challenges.

To solve problems in education policy and practice, many people with many different skill sets must learn how to collaborate. They must work across institutions, authority lines, and organizational boundaries. These collaborations sometimes take the form of education partnerships. Education partnerships involve agreements among K-12 school districts, governmental agencies, and universities, or even groups of different departmental representatives within a university.

However, partnerships are not easy to design or manage. because partnerships bring people together from different backgrounds, organizations, and disciplines.  This makes partnership work largely an exercise in bridging different cultures, and leading an education partnership requires good communication skills and the ability to cross multiple boundaries.

A new book focuses on the role of leaders in designing and managing education partnerships. WCER researchers Matthew Hora and Susan Millar have published “A Guide to Building Education Partnerships: Navigating Diverse Cultural Contexts to Turn Challenge into Promise.”  Instead of viewing partnerships, and the organizations that participate in them, as monolithic cultural entities, the authors suggest that four elements of organizational life more accurately capture what happens in organizations that is lost when we refer to “the culture of school X or university Y.”  These elements are cultural models, structure and technology, relationships, and routines and procedures.

  • A cultural model is a deeply held belief or interpretation of the world that is shared among members of a particular group.
  • Structures and technologies establish the parameters of what behaviors are possible, permissible, and rewarded.
  • Relationships are the key aspect of cultural life that tie individuals to other people, groups, and organizations.
  • Routines and procedures give meaning and identity to people’s roles within an organization. An organization’s structure creates opportunities and constraints for certain routines and practices, which in turn contribute to the development of a group’s cultural models. 

Each of these elements characterize cultural life in particular organizations, and they are brought into the “third space” where partnerships form. It is in the third space where leaders must essentially create an entirely new organization in uncharted and unpredictable environments that do not offer established policies and structures.  Thus, participants will face new situations and problems, and leaders need “adaptive expertise,” or the ability to apply skills and knowledge to the novel problems that arise in partnership work.  

Five principles form the basic message of the book that practitioners can use to design and implement education partnerships.

  • Visualize organizations and partnerships in multifaceted terms. The organizations within partnerships, and partnerships themselves, are not monolithic wholes, but are composed of subgroups that differ in important ways.
  • Plan and get acquainted. In a careful planning stage, all potential partners meet and get acquainted with one another and discuss the proposed work. It’s easy to assume that the way business is done in other groups is the same as in your own, but this is rarely the case.
  • Engage in a careful design process. Because newly initiated partnerships lack structure and procedures, starting one is like creating an entirely new organization.
  • Find boundary crossers. Partnership personnel will contend with unpredictable challenges, differences of opinion, and the likely need to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Foster new cultural dynamics. Partners will need to create task environments and foster new structures, relationships, and practices to generate new ways of thinking.

A Guide to Building Education Partnerships: Navigating Diverse Cultural Contexts to Turn Challenge into Promise. Matthew T. Hora and Susan B. Millar. Stylus Publishing, Inc., 2011.