• Use Community Resource Mapping and other research to develop knowledge of the existing assets, stakeholders, and connections in communities.
  • Evaluate community readiness to implement PBL in schools.
  • Determine target school districts and schools.
  • Identify “educator allies” and possible intermediary organizations to coordinate partnership efforts.



Many communities are not yet ready to tackle the difficult work of transforming schools to prepare students for college and career. While a deep understanding in the community about Project-Based Learning (PBL) is not a prerequisite for launching an effort to transform education (part of that initiative can include an educational campaign about the benefits of PBL), other factors can prove to be barriers.

Mapping processes and tools – or even just a concerted short-term research project – can be utilized to find the individuals and groups in the community who will be necessary for moving forward with this work and who often are already engaged in it, including three key groups of players:

  1. An intermediary organization(s) that is already engaged with the education and business sectors and that can bring together needed players, convene ongoing and future conversations, and coordinate partnership efforts (see below).
  2. “Educator allies” – principals, teachers, and administrators who understand the need for transformation and the benefits of PBL and will advocate for its inclusion in curricula.
  3. School districts and schools that may be ripe for systemic change such as implementing PBL, some of which may already be doing so.

These key players will be essential partners moving forward. Several other documents in this Toolkit are designed to support engagement with these groups around education transformation, explain the value that experienced professionals can bring to students, and inform participation in ongoing community conversations. This document is focused on evaluating whether the pieces are in place so that those efforts are likely to ultimately succeed.


Information about the organizations, leaders, schools, demographics, community discussions and initiatives, economic sectors, and other elements in a region can be found through many different sources.

Following are a few sources that may be useful:

  • Newspapers, blogs, and websites (look for the regional business newspaper)
  • Universities and colleges
  • Chambers of Commerce
  • Local government economic development departments
  • U.S. Census (trainings on using Census data are available in many cities)
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • State finance department websites
  • National Center for Educational Statistics (good for comparing between states)
  • State education departmental websites
  • Individual school district websites (most post performance data annually or more often)

Interviews with selected community leaders will be a key source of intelligence about existing relationships and past and current efforts to transform education. While interviews require a significant investment of time and resources, speaking with the right people can provide a great deal of helpful information that does not appear in data reports or newspapers.

Who to interview will depend on a community’s specific circumstances. However, the list below may provide some good ideas:

  • School district superintendents
  • School board members
  • High school principals who are more likely to be ready to implement Project-Based Learning in their schools or have done so already
  • Local university and community college leaders
  • Teachers’ union officials
  • Chamber of Commerce leadership (some Chambers have an education committee or initiative)
  • Executives, including Human Resources Directors, of prominent employers in the community
  • Corporate foundation and corporate community development executives
  • Leaders and Board members of other civic
  • Organizations that focus on education, employment, and career training
  • Executives and program officers of local community foundations and/or other charitable foundations that focus on education and/or workforce development
  • Journalists who cover the local education beat
  • Executives from science centers and other afterschool programs in the community
  • Fellow project management professionals who are involved in education reform activities


One of the most important questions that transformation advocates should help to answer is whether a community is ready to move forward with an endeavor like this one in the first place. Schools and education are contentious issues everyplace, and trying to make change in classrooms can often feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

In order to decide if a community is ready (or perhaps is already engaged in this work), advocates will need to determine if three important factors are in place:

  1. a culture of readiness for change,
  2. a community that supports education, and
  3. an organization ready to serve as intermediary or “backbone”.

male student

All leaders of this type of effort will need to develop an understanding of the issues that schools and communities are facing today (see the Toolkit section “Understanding Education Strategies” for helpful information), while school officials and teachers will need to be prepared to implement and support the infusion of learning projects into their curricula.

Following is an extensive list of factors that will influence readiness. It can be narrowed to match local priorities and context.

Strong, interested PMI chapter

  • Members who will commit to being involved
  • Ability to fund student/school/teacher involvement
  • Interest in helping develop strong business/ employer engagement opportunities

School Performance

  • State Adequate Yearly Progress Performance below standards
  • Graduation Rates below standards
  • Math and Literacy scores below standards
  • Achievement gap of African-American & Hispanic students compared to white peers

Student Demographics – Target areas with higher number of students at risk of academic failure – may include following characteristics

  • Qualify for free/reduced lunch
  • Over-age and under-credit
  • Underrepresented racial/ethnic populations
  • Qualify for special education services
  • English language learners
  • Dropout/truancy rates
  • Homeless
  • Recipients of foster care
  • Teen parents
  • Court involved

School district support

  • Relationships with National Academy Foundation and/or other high school transformation programs such as Talent Development, Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies Next Generation Learning, North Carolina New Schools, Southern Regional Education Board, ConnectEd California Center for College and Career, Linked Learning Alliance, Northwest Community · Action Center, College and Career Academy Support Network
  • Small learning community structure within comprehensive schools with cohorts of students who work with a team of teachers over multiple years
  • Team teaching utilizing strong project based learning curriculum and techniques incorporating business/employer involvement with students and teachers
  • Understanding and prioritization of work-based learning activities and outcomes for students
  • Formal articulation of district goals for changing and improving schools and student outcomes, e.g., has the District incorporated college and career skills into its Strategic Plan

Community Support

  • One or more existing intermediary organizations that could take on the crucial functions of convening, connecting, measuring, and sustaining the work (see below)
  • Local businesses that provide grass roots support to students, teachers, and schools
  • Businesses and public employers with willingness to involve their employees with students and teachers both in the classroom and in the workplace
  • Strong community foundations with resources that can be directed to developing structures for career themed academies with community involvement
  • Local emphasis, program, or campaigns to improve schools and student outcomes
  • PTA and other parent group support for college and career readiness uncover the assets of the community – its knowledge, relationships, organizations, · leadership, and openness to change – that it will need to succeed in the difficult work of transforming schools and implementing 21st Century learning. These include identifying the schools and educators who are most prepared to implement PBL, the existing coalitions and task forces (or “moving trains”) that are already seeking to address education and career readiness issues, and the organizations that can take on the intermediary tasks that are essential to keeping the initiative moving.
  • Formal academic agreements between school districts and local colleges for offering college course credit for specific high school courses
  • Fast-tracking college admission to students who complete specific high school academic programs of study

“Moving Trains” – existing coalitions and initiatives

Many communities have already seen multiple efforts to address education and career readiness issues. Nearly every region has several ongoing “coalitions,” “initiatives,” “reform projects,” etc., all seeking to solve the challenges of an unprepared workforce. The Forum for Youth Investment calls these types of efforts “moving trains” – the “fragmented and overlapping array of well-intentioned coalitions, networks, partnerships and task forces – each aimed at shaping polices and securing resources for specific… issues or demographic groups.”

What is the best way to discover and engage with these “moving trains”? In addition to web and newspaper searches, the most effective approach is likely to ask community leaders about the coalitions and initiatives with which they interact.

Note also that the organizations serving as intermediaries or backbones of these efforts are likely to be the most appropriate and best-suited to take on a similar role in implementing PBL (see below for more information).

Intermediaries and “Backbone Organizations”

pair learning

One crucial factor in determining whether a region has the necessary assets to move forward on PBL in the classroom is the need to find a partner organization that is already engaged with the education and business sectors and that can take on the crucial functions of convening, connecting, measuring, and sustaining the work, including the Quality Assurance and Risk Management aspects. Individual project managers may not have existing relationships with all of the important stakeholders, knowledge of all the relevant education-related systems, or the time to develop them.

An intermediary organization can bring together needed players, convene ongoing and future conversations, and coordinate partnership efforts. This intermediary will be a central player as this initiative moves forward. And so, identifying an intermediary, building a relationship with its leadership, and helping them to understand the role that PBL can play in achieving regional education goals are essential tasks.

Since 2011, a burgeoning number of articles and blog posts have begun to define a special role for intermediaries that take on the ongoing responsibilities of supporting and facilitating collective, cross-sectoral efforts to tackle complex, large-scale social problems. The writers of these pieces call these central players “backbone organizations,” and they exist in many communities in many different forms.

John Kania and Mark Kramer of the consulting firm FSG offer this set of key characteristics: “The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly.” They and others also see six essential activities that backbone organizations conduct as part of a collective initiative:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize funding

An intermediary organization may not need to fulfill all of these functions in order to succeed. But, depending existing collective impact efforts (the “moving trains”) fit with that effort, organizations that are already serving as backbones to those initiatives may also be the right partners.

Additionally, the Forum for Youth Investment developed a short worksheet that lists a number of important attributes/activities of backbone support organizations (based on Kania and Kramer’s research) and which can be helpful to assess the strength of possible candidates for the intermediary role.


Even with a better understanding of some of the national trends affecting schools and college and career readiness, project leaders should also consider many locally specific factors and strategies that will help them to find the schools that are most ready to engage with transformation through Project-Based Learning. Because there is such enormous diversity of school districts and communities, this section will offer mostly information at a general level about how to investigate a specific community’s readiness. An exception is the last topic, which outlines exemplary work being done in several states and districts around the country.

Leveraging the community mapping effort

Another resource Toolkit already describes an effective method to determine community capacity and learn more about local school districts and education leadership: Community Resource Mapping. Whether or not a formal mapping process is launched, leaders can look into the factors below to better understand their local community context and the key leaders to bring into community involvement. If a map is created, these elements should be built into its scope.

The Community Resource Map should be designed to gather basic information about all of the school districts in the region. Leaders from at least some of these districts (including school principals) should be engaged in the research process and community conversations. Mappers will likely also be evaluating the districts’ culture of readiness for change according to a detailed set of readiness factors that are listed in Section II. To these, factors like the following questions can be added:

  • How committed is the district and/or its schools to college and career readiness versus academic subjects only? (Reviewing any District- and school-level Strategic Plans will be helpful here.)
  • How is this district implementing the Common Core standards or other state standards?
  • To what extent are the schools using Common Core or other initiatives to drive major change and reinvention?
  • Has the district and/or its schools already implemented Project-Based Learning and/or Work-Based Learning? To what extent?
  • Does the district operate any career academies? How are they affiliated and certified?

Asking these questions and delving into the other readiness factors (especially the ones related to community support) will help to identify the school districts and individual schools that have already embraced the importance of career readiness alongside academics and college readiness.

The mapping process is also an excellent way to identify the school district leaders, including principals, who will be key partners in shaping change. Some number of these leaders should be invited to participate in community conversations, and more of them will engage with the process as this effort continues. (The Community Resource Mapping process will also be useful to find the other local education leaders, reform efforts, and groups who will be key partners moving forward.)

Local implementation of Common Core and other education strategies

Not all states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and implementation of CCSS varies greatly among those that have. However, all states have specific standards that form the backbone of curriculum and assessment development. Curriculum and assessment decisions, processes, and policies made at the state and school district levels determine the degree of success toward those outcomes. Ultimately, research and conversations with local education leaders will help the leadership team to understand the ongoing changes in their community. The following web links will help to point toward the right direction for initial exploration:

Other important local factors

In addition to the education strategies above, other factors may be important to understand in order to navigate through tricky waters build relationships with local school leaders. These will also be crucial factors in determining which districts and which schools will make good partners to lead change. Here are a few critical factors:

  • Testing and other assessment of students. What tests are used by the school district, and how can PBL play a role in preparing students for them? What is the role of performance assessments? This may be in flux as states implement Common Core and adopt new assessments.
  • Current district leadership support. Who are the superintendents and school board members of the local school districts, and what positions do each of them seem to take on education reform initiatives? Have they said anything about PBL publicly or already begun an effort to implement it? The District Strategic Plan, usually a public document, can be a good indicator of current thinking.
  • The role of local teachers’ organizations. Do teacher unions and other organizations take a strong role in education reform in that district? How have they influenced teacher practice and educational practice? What are their relationships with district administration? How can they be partners in transformation efforts? Who are the key leaders that can be part of community conversations?
  • Strength of Career Technical Education (CTE) programs. The robustness of these programs can indicate how committed districts and schools are to career readiness, as will their levels of integration into academic subjects. Are CTE classes and other WBL completely separated from academics, or has there been an effort to keep them near the center of the educational mission?
  • Time constraints on teachers. Because implementing PBL in the classroom requires considerable professional development for the teachers involved (PMIEF’s Virtual Workshops and/or other sources) and preparation of new curricula, the teachers will need to have enough time available to take it on. If a school is already maximizing its teachers’ time for other training and work, it would affect their ability to take on this additional challenge. Are district/school leaders willing to rearrange schedules and commit resources to build professional capacity?
  • Different perspectives within a single school. Just because a principal and a few teachers are enthusiastic about transformation, that doesn’t mean that the entire school will instantly back the idea. Some teachers might not want to change how they have done things, or feel that the program is one more attempt to take away their autonomy in their own classrooms. Different grade levels and/or departments in the school might not communicate well with each other. Keep in mind that change can be slow, and that part of the job for outside professional volunteers is to support educator partners in showing the benefits of PBL and persuading reluctant colleagues.


In order to engage with the ongoing conversations in any community, it is critically important to develop an understanding of the complex systems that it comprises. Those who wish to become effective participants in those conversations must discover the assets in their specific local communities – the knowledge, relationships, organizations, leadership, and openness to change – that will be essential for success in the difficult work of transforming schools to prepare students for college and career. These include identifying the schools and educators who are most prepared to implement PBL, the existing coalitions and task forces (or “moving trains”) that are already seeking to address education and career readiness issues, and the organizations that can take on the intermediary tasks that are essential to keeping the initiative moving.

“Community Resource Mapping: A Strategy for Promoting Successful Transition for Youth with Disabilities”, Kelli Crane and Becky Skinner, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. Information Brief, April 2003. www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=939

“Ready by 21 Community Catalysts – Ready Leaders: Aligning a Community’s Moving Trains”. Forum for Youth Investment. readyby21.org

“Collective Impact”. John Kania and Mark Kramer, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011, p. 36-41.

“Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact”. Shiloh Turner, Kathy Merchant, John Kania, and Ellen Martin. FSG & The Greater Cincinnatti Foundation.