The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can Only Pick Two

Teachers, principals, researchers, and parents face dilemmas daily. For readers of this post, the most common they face is the tension between personal and professional values—spend time with family and friends vs. spend time at work. Because time is limited, you cannot do it all–choices have to be made. Compromises and tradeoffs are inevitable. From CEOs to software designers to single Moms to marketing consultants, these dilemmas are ever present.

For entrepreneurs, start-up innovators, policymakers, principals, and teachers who initiate projects there is a another dilemma that won’t go away. The dilemma is choosing among three competing values: do the project fast, do it cheap, and do it “good.” Why do you have to choose? Because resources are limited–time, people, money–you can only do two. You cannot have it all.













Constraints that won’t go away require choices. You want to have the highest quality project, i.e., “good,” but to get that, it takes time and time often means that costs rise. It won’t be cheap. Film director Jim Jarmusch captures the tensions that exist between speed, quality, and price (not only in dollars but in time and people). These tradeoffs in managing the dilemma derive from not only high-tech start-ups aimed at the school market  but also apply to classroom teachers,  principals, superintendents, and school boards as well.

Consider the Los Angeles fiasco of buying and distributing Apple iPads (see here and here). The Superintendent and school board thought they could get “good” by doing it “fast” and “cheap.” They failed miserably. The superintendent resigned. A year later, the fallout from these decisions still rock the district.

Now consider teachers who want to begin project-based learning (PBL) in their classrooms. What comes across in their accounts is that they didn’t implement it all at once but started a piece of project based learning–say getting students to ask questions–and worked on it before expanding it to an entire lesson (see here and here) . They chose “good”  over “fast.” They invested their time incrementally to learn how best to pull off project-based learning. Those investments of teacher time add up and make it expensive in teacher time but workable with students in a lesson.

For a classroom, putting an innovation into practice is one thing, expanding the innovation to an entire school is another. To build project-based learning across an entire high school is also done in increments and takes longer (see here)   The switch from one pedagogy to another or installing a new way of teaching across all subjects courts failure when done in one fell swoop. In those high schools where teachers put into practice PBL, more often than not, it occurred in chunks. Two steps forward, one step backward. Trial and error. And it takes time.  “Good” trumps “fast.” Implementation involving teacher time in picking up expertise at every step of the way, however, is seldom cheap.

The same constraint-ridden dilemma of choosing among “good,”fast”, and “cheap” and then putting the program into practice incrementally applies to a district also. Look at a largely minority district with nearly 25,000 students that has, over thirty five years–yes, for more than three decades–sustained academic improvement, reduced the achievement gap between minorities and whites, and introduced many organizational, governance, curricular, and instructional changes slowly, carefully, and incrementally in those years. The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. For an urban district, that kind of continuity in leadership borders on extraordinary.

Using pilot programs to introduce innovations slowly and evaluating outcomes, the district has approached implementation of new ideas and practices incrementally in order to offer quality programs to students. Fast and cheap rollouts of technology, new curricula, and different organizations seldom occurred.  For  example, in 2006, school officials introduced a Spanish Immersion program in the elementary schools.Teachers were recruited, selected, trained to offer the instruction. Students spent 90 to 135 minutes weekly in Spanish beginning in kindergarten and then eventually instruction extended into the upper grades. At each step of the way, district officials communicated with parents, listened to their concerns and those of teachers, and made changes as the program was rolled out. Spanish Immersion language programs are currently in 17 out of 22 Arlington County elementary schools. Over a decade, then, a new program was introduced incrementally and is considered by school officials, practitioners, and parents. “Good” trumped “fast.” Costs in administrative and teacher time, professional development,and instructional materials surely added up and the dollar cost would appear large until those costs are amortized over a decade and the number of students served.

Classes using new pedagogies, schools putting instructional innovations into practice, and total district changes have to deal with iron-clad constraints–“fast,” “cheap,” and “good”. Choices have to be made because no one can have it all. With continuity in leadership, a commitment to careful implementation in bite-sized increments, the dilemma can be managed successfully.




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

11 responses to “The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can Only Pick Two

  1. Pingback: The Dilemma of Fast, Cheap, and Good: You Can O...

  2. Ironically, I recently wrote an essay called Education: No Iron Triangle. I was looking at the triangle with regards to overall achievement, not implementation of one strategy.

    We don’t agree on what “good” teaching means, much less how to achieve it in terms of increasing academic outcomes. The jury is largely in on “cheap”–that is, spending money has not led to an increase in test scores. We do count “fast”–that is, if you look at educational achievement outcomes, it’s clear people are evaluating by time. Pick up a year of learning, “catch up”, move learning objectives earlier to increase learning outcomes–which also appears not to work.

    That doesn’t mean we aren’t improving educational outcomes: NAEP scores are up. Keeping kids productive and learning, even if they aren’t achieving the goals reformers want, counts. But in the big picture sense, I would argue that reformers want an iron triangle and are trying to make these tradeoffs, but it doesn’t exist.

  3. I appreciate this sentiment. I have been thinking about a blog post title that goes something like this, “The three steps forward, two steps back slow school reform, from surface to deep learning through small wins and incremental gains through dialogue, iteration, missteps, redos, and continuous improvement”. Catchy no?

  4. EB

    Much of “old-style” instruction is project-based when it’s easy to see why PBL is needed — visual and performing arts resulting in performances and exhibits, science labs (especially several linked experiments), term papers that involve research, etc. I think math teachers and foreign language teachers have the hardest time with PBL, often not because they oppose it so much as because projects seem to interrupt the continuous skill-building that they see as their primary goal for students.

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, Jane. Differences among academic subjects do matter when it comes to pedagogy. Thanks for comment.

  5. Sandy

    Arlington is an excellent example….until their technology “pilot” – 1:1 for all by 2017. No insurance, no way to hold students accountable for their devices; no expectation by curriculum supervisors for the integration of 1:1 – in fact they’ve had their heads buried in the sand as to what their role should be; and do I even need to mention this? no professional development for teachers except: here’s how you turn it on and set up your email and calendar. Tune in next year. The pilot is now suppose to be instruction driven not technology driven.

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