Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 1)

Recently a journalist contacted me to discuss the closure of a Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis after five years and the jeopardy of the charter network’s expansion from its original Yuma (AZ) location (see here and here; YouTube marketing video here).

We talked about the historic difficulties of “scaling up” innovations in public schools. I offered some examples of how hard it is to take a “successful” innovation and grow it quickly elsewhere in the name of efficiency (economies of scale) and effectiveness (to help more children and youth). In many instances, pressure to “scale up” from pilot projects to networks of schools seeded in different locations came from ambitious school officials, impatient donors, and entrepreneurial investors. Too often they overlooked the common teacher practice of adapting an innovation to the specific setting, a practice that is as old as teaching itself. Classroom adaptations, of course, alter the innovation.

After we got off the phone I recalled other innovations over the past 60 years that tried to “scale up” from pilot projects. Many stumbled in their expansion, especially those aimed at altering how teachers traditionally teach, for  reasons that contemporary reformers might heed before thinking big.

One that came to mind was the Higher Horizons Project in New York City between the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.

A 1964 report summarized the program’s origin in a pilot junior high school and then its rapid expansion to scores of other city schools.

Higher Horizons originated as a program to uncover latent ability among culturally deprived children and to provide the gifted children with remedial instruction and “enrichment” experiences, such as trips to art galleries, concerts, and the theater. The ultimate object was to lift the aspirations of gifted youngsters from the slums by encouraging them to believe in their ability to advance their station in life through education. Success of the experiment is indicated by the fact that a relatively large percentage of the participating pupils have completed high school and gone on to college.

The program has now been opened to any child who can benefit from it, whether or not he has more than average ability. Each school is free to choose any part of Higher Horizons that fits the particular needs of its students. In general, the program provides extra teachers or “curriculum assistants,” remedial classes (especially in arithmetic and reading), activities that draw parents into closer relationships with the schools, and field trips and other excursions for cultural enrichment.

In “scaling up” New York City school officials extended the mission of the program to nearly all students responding, in part, politically to the growing civil rights movement in the city protesting segregated schools and funding inequities.  In broadening the program to many more schools and permitting schools to pick and choose pieces of the innovation, district officials spent little time or attention upon school-site implementation or how teachers taught. Moreover, they provided less money and staffing to newly-labeled Higher Horizon schools than in the pilot junior high school. Subsequent evaluations of the scaled-up program showed little to no gains in academic achievement or school improvement (see here and here).

What New York City officials did in the 1960s to “scale up” a promising demonstration program and spread it to many other schools to increase both teacher and school efficiency and effectiveness has occurred many times over the past half-century and continues to exist in 2017.

Consider, for example, Rocketship charter schools, a network that began in 2005 in one K-5 San Jose elementary school enrolling mostly poor Latino students. Co-founder John Danner, who had made his wealth in selling a Silicon Valley start up, became a middle school teacher and then afterwards established a cluster of schools, using mostly Teach for America newcomers. The idea was to alter dramatically how elementary schools are structured and, at the same time, use online lessons in reading and math. The school divided children’s time between a large chunk of time sitting in cubicles–the “Learning Lab”–doing online lessons supervised by teacher aides and another chunk of the school day in classrooms with teachers doing regular lessons (see here  and here,). In accepting the prestigious McNulty Prize in 2010, Danner said:

Today, we have three flourishing schools in San Jose, California; in just five years, we intend to increase that number to 30 schools, and in 10 years, we will have built out a national network of hundreds of successful schools.

Danner left Rocketship in 2013 when there were seven schools in the San Jose area, a school in Milwaukee, and plans for a school in Nashville. By that time, Rocketship had secured approval to open 30 schools in Santa Clara County in five years.

In 2017, however, there are 14 Rocketship schools in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, and Nashville including one that opened last year in Washington, D.C.

Going to the scale that the co-founders of the charter network sought has been an arduous process marked by program shifts, slow growth, and the inevitable stumbles that accompany expansion of programs aiming to alter school structure and traditional teaching.

Which brings me back to the journalist’s question about the Carpe Diem charter that closed in Indianapolis. Part 2 of this post analyzes why “scaling up” is so hard to do.

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