MA state leaders move past talk to real collaborative action

On October 24 th , Wheelock College Aspire Institute hosted the commissioners and leadership staff from seven state agencies for a leaders’ retreat to discuss and plan common action in support of MA children and families. The impetus for this retreat was to the MA Race to The Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTTT-ELC) grant. MA was one of nine states to receive the highly competitive RTTT-ELC grant this past January. To fulfill the grant, MA outlined key areas in which state agencies, including the Dept of Early Education and Care, the Dept of Public Health, the Dept of Higher Education, the Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Dept of Transitional Assistance, the Dept of Children and Families, the Dept of Housing and Community Development, the Dept of Mental Health, and the Executive Office of Education, would collaborate to support child development outcome goals. The October 24th retreat was the second of series of retreats designed to facilitate this collaboration.

describe the image Cross-system, cross-agency collaboration, of course, is not novel. There have been many efforts to establish broad, sustained cooperation multiple systems and organizations. And for good reason—sharing knowledge and resources, and linking services can foster creative, holistic approaches that ensure more families and children receive adequate education, health and social supports.  Yet substantive collaboration is rare and is especially difficult between large systems and many partners. There is a ‘graveyard’ of consortiums, partnerships, alliances, networks, and joint-taskforces that started out with good intent— and identified clear, mutual goals—but that ultimately resulted in no or limited action or impact. The problem has never been convening stakeholders to establishing a partnership.  The problem is what happens after that.

Based on the RTTT-ELC planning retreat, collaboration among MA state agency leaders promises to be different.  In particular, there are three key elements in place helping to spur action:

1. Committed leadership . The MA Dept of Early Education and Care (EEC) has taken a strong, sustained leadership role in the RTTT-ELC initiative, from developing the proposal, engaging partner agencies, to planning the state retreats. EEC Commissioner Sherri Killins has kept her ‘eye on the prize’ of developing cross-agency collaboration to improve services and outcomes from families and children.

2. Conceptual framework. In the October 24 th retreat, agency leaders reviewed and developed consensus towards a “Two-Generational” approach to child and family service delivery. This approach, grounded in ecological models of child development, stipulates that in order to significantly improve child outcomes, state agencies must provide services to whole families, rather than just to children or mothers, or fathers. In other words, when families benefit from stable housing, environmental and public safety, quality child-care, education, and adult education opportunities, health care, nutrition and food security, and early screening and prevention programs, children in these families are more likely to thrive

3. Focused action. Rather than begin collaborative work on multiple fronts, MA state leaders identified two starting points: shared professional development in child development concepts and practices, and; aligning eligibility criteria across multiple child and family services and benefits. Planning briefs were developed to facilitate discussion and planning in these areas, and state agency leaders identified and voted on immediate (3-8 month) action steps for advancing work in each area. EEC staff will now coordinate ongoing work in these areas with staff from all agencies

The MA RTTT-ELC effort may serve as a model to other states seeking to develop similar cross-agency collaborations. I, for one, am hopeful that this time, leaders will move past talk of collaboration, and take up real action on behalf of children and families.

Jake Murray is the Senior Director at the Aspire Institute. You can reach him at