Reflecting on School Reforms: Scaling Up versus Short, Happy Life or Hanging in

For decades, under the influence of efficiency-minded policymakers the “wisdom” of reform has been as follows:

To solve serious school problems federal, state, and district policymakers take “good” ideas, find the right people to implement them faithfully on a small scale (e.g., pilots, “experimental” projects), and then, spread the results across a larger playing field to reach the largest number of students. Or scaling up, in policy-talk. That is how reform should be done.

That policy “wisdom”–so rational on its surface (often called a research and development strategy to jump-start innovation)–has dominated reform for the past half-century. The results, however, have been sometimes disappointing, and occasionally disastrous.  Unanticipated issues arose. Flaws in the original design went unaddressed. Faulty implementation occurred.  Unexpected consequences popped up. Insufficient resources were allocated. Educators lacked capabilities. The list of reasons documenting the failure of scaling up innovations from pilots to entire districts or states gets longer as reforms entered the public school arena decade after decade.

How about some examples?

*NCLB and over-testing married to federally-imposed coercive accountability;

*Decentralizing authority to school sites where councils of teachers, parents, and principals make major decisions;

*Mandating that districts and school use new technologies in classrooms to improve instruction.

I could easily cite instances between the 1950s through the 1970s (e.g., math and science “new” curricula, performance contracting, the self-esteem movement, outcome-based schooling) but won’t elaborate. These failures to alter districts, schools, and classrooms in substantial ways have been well documented. This conventional R & D wisdom of starting small and then scaling up reforms to larger populations–has anyone tried to scale up Socrates’ success with students?– all to install supposed efficiencies and apparent successes continue as the dominant way of thinking about school reform in the face of disappointing evidence and outright failure.

There is, however, another way of looking at innovations and school reform historically. This way-of-seeing, anchored in the complexity of classrooms, schools, and districts, builds in high degrees of interaction between and among staff, parents, and community to cope with inexorable political changes that occur inside and outside the district and school. Such a way of conceptualizing reform recognizes that people who work in these complex, interactive community institutions don’t scale up reforms easily or quickly because contexts differ, resources dry up, determined people work hard and create success and, over time, get fatigued and leave. Even the very best results cannot be sustained without further changes in what worked initially.  Thus, even the best-planned solutions, flawlessly implemented by educators with requisite expertise, solid political support, and sufficient resources at work in one or a few schools–may only last a short time (anywhere from five to ten years or longer) and eventually wither away. Occasionally, exceptions do occur and can last many years. Examples range from Individually Guided Education (for exception, see here), Coalition of Essential Schools (for exception, see here), Paedeia (for exception, see here)

I call these  “happy but short-lived” reforms. Why?

Such efforts come in with a splash, do well for limited numbers of students and teachers for a few years and then, in time, for various reasons, falter and expire. The short time they were in full bloom were “happy” for those touched by the innovation; such reforms excited great hopes that they could be scaled up to benefit more students and teachers. But scaling up was then (and now) seen as a technical task that capable managers could easily replicate to do good elsewhere. Reproducing a complex  innovation anchored in thousands of human interactions in a sea of uncertainty is neither technical or easily reproduced in a highly political and uncertain environment. Such in-vitro-fertilization is beyond the ken of current educational policymakers and scientists. So these “happy” reforms expired. They were “short-lived” but left a residue of hope that similar smart people coming together and working hard could again create a program, a culture of learning, that would help students and teachers. Thus, “happy but short-lived” innovations and reform are worthy and should be encouraged without high hopes of being scaled up. So this is another way of viewing the history of school reform.

And there is even a third perspective beyond traditional R &D and “happy but short-lived” innovations. There are scattered districts, charter management organizations, and schools that have learned how to retain focus on what they do daily while problem solving again and again to sustain a culture of improvement, stable leadership, and adherence to the founding principles. All of this done while  adapting, sometimes smoothly, sometimes jerkily to the political, economic, and social changes that inevitably appear. Such districts, CMOs, and individual schools change over time as they stick to their founding principles. Hence, occasional “happy but short-lived” reforms slowly but determinedly morph into satisfying, long-term changes that benefit students, teachers, and communities.

And there is even a fourth way to get around the dominant model of “scaling up.” That is to export successful pieces of a reform design to schools willing to adapt the export to their setting. Think of Summit charter schools holding summer “base camps” for districts to send teachers to learn about “personalized learning” (SEE HERE AND HERE). Or Summit exporting their Personalized Learning Platform to over a hundred schools


For district examples, look at Union City, New Jersey as captured in David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars. Or Long Beach, California, (see here and here). For charter management organizations, look at Aspire (1999) with 35 schools in California and three in Tennessee and KIPP (1994) with 183 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. For SUMMIT ADD HERE For individual schools, see the above exceptions I noted to “happy but short-lived” reforms and other long-term examples such as H-B Woodlawn School in Arlington, Virginia (1972) and the Urban Academy in New York City (1986).

Here, then, are four very different ways at examining school reforms over time in a highly complex, political, and uncertain environment that depends upon much social and individual interaction for success, however measured. Scaling up remains the dominant policy goal for innovations. “Happy but short-lived” is what commonly happens when scaling up doesn’t occur or is botched; there is, however, no shame in a reform lasting a short time. A third way of seeing school reform over time is constant problem solving, sticking to founding principles, and stable leadership. Although practiced by a tiny minority of schools and districts, it is an alternative, very difficult to  sustain, to patterns captured in the other two ways of trying to change schools. Finally, exporting features of designs to willing districts.



Filed under school reform policies

10 responses to “Reflecting on School Reforms: Scaling Up versus Short, Happy Life or Hanging in

  1. David Patterson

    As an educator working/searching for three decades for the holy grail of improving educational success for students, especially those students traditionally poorly served by schools and school systems, I found your commentary interesting but incomplete. You point out the limitations of R&D. You talk about happy but short lived in a way that provides some solace that the time spent by many was of value. However, the third way, sticking to founding principles and continuous improvement you believe is effective but you think represents a tiny minority. For the millions of students not well served, is there a way for this third approach to become scalable…. Or is the achievement gap and a lifetime of negative impact, except for rare cases of high performing schools, the fate of this students? Appreciate your work and your blog, and look forward to your thoughts.

    David Patterson, Ed.D.
    President, Placer County Board of Education

  2. GE2L2R


    I’ve been following your thoughts about the impact of innovation and change or the lack thereof in education whether related to the introduction and adaption of technology or simply whatever is the current updated version or educational thought or trend. The one image that keeps reappearing in my thoughts is that of a sailboat tacking into the wind.

    The apparent course of a sailboat (short term) out of necessity, responds to the forces acting on it, whether tide, currents and especially the wind. It is only over a observing the boat repeatedly tack to accommodate these external factors over a longer period of time that its true course (long term) can be determined. Moreover, while the most visible feature of the sailboat, the sail, is evident to observers, these forces of change are counterbalanced or stabilized by the unseen but necessary effects of the keel.

    To attempt to predict the boat’s destination (long term) based on but a single observation would most likely be flawed. These short-term changes may influence the instantaneous direction of the boat but may not reveal or alter its true course and direction.

    The various innovations and reforms are the wind acting on the sail and for a time, altering the course of the sailboat. Eventually perhaps, a new (short term) factor will alter the course in a different direction. The stabilizing effect of the keel, a sort of institutional inertia, will permit the boat to make forward progress albeit perhaps not as fast as reformers would desire.

    I don’t know if this makes any sense, but it suggests to me that changes in education are incremental, and that for them to be actual improvements will take time before those that are meaningful are actually incorporated into the institution’s voyage.

    “More often, education resembles such fields as fashion and design, in which change mirrors shifts in taste and social climate and is not usually thought of as true progress.”

    Robert Slavin
    “PET and the Pendulum: Faddism in Education and how to Stop It.”
    Phi Delta Kappan – June 1989

  3. I was one of your “petri dish” R & D’s. At the beginning of the CA Healthy Start grants (linking mental, social and physical support services into K-12 CA schools), we wrote a proposal.

    We cited your First and Second Order Change Theory and then proposed using Jack Welch’s newly implemented business process as the means to achieve a Second Order Change. My ex husband was at GE Corporate at the time, and Welch generously shared everything, including the offer of coaching support for our district.

    The state jumped on it and, within six months, the SRI International evaluator was spending more and more time at our site. We were exceeding all kinds of objectives – and, at a high school with over 4,000 kids, 200+ teachers and 40-some languages in a lower socio-economic area complete with gangs.

    Healthy Start was supposed to work in small elementary schools where kids, parents and teachers knew each other, but here we were, making enormous changes in students, teachers, the school climate, attendance, discipline and academics. We were so successful that SRI took us to the AERA (American Educational Research Association) Convention as their field study case.

    The GE process (it’d be known as continuous improvement now) became the basis of RFPs, not only for Healthy Start, but all DOE and DOJ education grants in CA. It was simply amazing, and, even more to the point, even with the recession and cutbacks, the majority of Healthy Start sites still limp along.

    I successfully utilized the same process at my next assignment, working with law enforcement and schools to mitigate the impact of active shooter incidents.

    What happened? A lot like you stated, leadership changes, funding disappears, staff changes.

    I’ve wondered if a lot of the successes is contingent upon a “cheerleader.” I’ve also wondered how many people actually understand process, which is critical to continuous improvement; I sometimes think most people understand checklists, but don’t understand the “how” of process.

    Thank you again for your insights!
    Carla Holtzclaw

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate your rendering of experiences you had, Carla. “Cheerleaders” are crucial in the early stages of an innovation but longevity does require shared values and continuity in leadership and the other factors that you cite.

  4. Ariana Lopez

    Dr. Cuban
    I am currently a doctoral student at Arizona State University and for my research I am interested in looking at the sustainability of innovations/initiatives after funding has ended and have come across some of your work on sustaining school reforms. I find your work to be very insightful for my own work. Do you know of anyone who has conducted research on this topic in the early childhood field? In my searching I haven’t found much but wondered if you knew of any work. I am planning on looking at preschool teachers’ and directors’ perceptions of sustaining the work of a grant after the funding has ended and am finding little on sustainability in early childhood.
    Thank you,
    Ariana Lopez, MaED

    • larrycuban

      What I know about, chances are that you do as well. The Abecedarian project in North Carolina, Head Start studies, and the Perry preschool project. They are longitudinal studies. Beyond that, I would have to dip into the literature. Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s