For decades, under the influence of efficiency-minded policymakers the “wisdom” of reform has been as follows:
To solve serious school problems policymakers and philanthropists take “good” ideas, find the right people to implement them faithfully on a small scale (e.g., pilots, “demonstration” projects), and then, using positive results from independent research and evaluation, spread the results across a larger playing field to reach the most students. Rational and scientific, that is how reform should be done.
That policy “wisdom” on how best to “scale up” reforms has dominated reform for the past half-century. Often called research and development (“R & D”), the results, however, have been often disappointing, and occasionally disastrous. Unanticipated issues arose. Flaws in the original design went unaddressed. Faulty implementation occurred. Teachers and principals tailored the design of the innovation to their settings. 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 speak to the documented limits of R&D (see here and here).
I could easily cite instances between the 1950s through the 1980s (e.g., math and science “new” curricula, the self-esteem movement, school site decision-making, Effective Schools, outcome-based schooling) but won’t elaborate. These failures to alter districts, schools, and classrooms substantially and for extended periods of time have been well documented. This conventional wisdom of starting small and then scaling up reforms to larger populations–has anyone tried to scale up Socrates’ success with students?– continue as the dominant way of thinking about school reform in the face of disappointing evidence and outright failure.
The core dilemma that policymakers and donors face in “scaling up” is whether they are seeking faithful replication of the innovation–fidelity to the model–that seemingly worked in a one or handful of schools (e.g., the reading program Success for All) or do they want schools to adapt the innovation to their settings as they tailor it to their context (e.g., Comprehensive School Reform models)–called “mutual adaptation.” In both instances the depth of the implementation (district to school to classroom teachers’ beliefs and practices) and who owns the innovation during and after it is put into practice (school board, administrators, teachers) are central issues that few policymakers or foundation officials have seriously considered.
There are, however, (and have been) other ways of looking at innovations and school reform. Consider a way-of-seeing anchored in the complexity of classroom teaching within age-graded schools, and decentralized local districts where teaching depends upon 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 political institutions don’t scale up reforms easily or quickly because contexts differ, resources dry up, determined people work hard and create success but, over time, get fatigued and leave. Even the very best results cannot be sustained without further changes in what worked initially. Thus, the best-planned solutions, flawlessly implemented by educators with requisite expertise, enjoying solid political support, teacher buy-in, and sufficient resources at work in one or a few schools–may only last a short time (five 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 too often 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 like-minded smart people coming together and working hard could again create a program and 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.
Another perspective beyond traditional R & D and “happy but short-lived” innovations is continuous improvement. There are scattered districts, charter management organizations, and schools that have learned how to retain focus on what they do daily while diagnosing and solving problems again and again to sustain a culture of improvement, stable leadership, and adherence to their founding principles. All of this done while adapting, sometimes smoothly, sometimes hastily 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.
For district examples of continuous improvement, look at Union City, New Jersey as captured in David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars. Or Long Beach, California, (see here). For charter management organizations, look at Aspire founded in 1999 and now has 35 schools in California and three in Tennessee and KIPP (1994) with 183 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. For individual schools, see H-B Woodlawn School in Arlington, Virginia (1972) and the Urban Academy in New York City (1986).
And there is even another perspective that gets around the dominant R & D model of “scaling up.” Exporting successful pieces of a reform design to schools willing to adapt a part of the innovation to their setting is returning to fashion. Even though the first generation of diffusion-of-innovation literature left a sour taste in the mouths of eager reformers anxious to “scale up” their pet reforms (see here and here), current innovators, backed by donors’ thick wallets, invite districts to take a part of the innovation and adapt it to their schools.
Think of Summit charter schools exporting their Personalized Learning Platform to over a hundred schools since 2015 through summer “base camps” for districts where teachers learn about “personalized learning” and adapt it to their setting (see here and here).
Here, then, are four very different ways of examining the concept of “scaling up” innovations over time in highly complex, political, and uncertain environments that depend upon much social and individual interaction for success. Because there is a core dilemma involving consequential choices at the heart of “scaling up” no sure-fire recipes for how-to-do-it exists. Too many decision-makers using one or more of the above perspectives have ignored the inherent dilemma and piled up outright failures.
Nonetheless, even after a well-documented history of failed attempts and cautions triggered by failures, “scaling up” a prized innovation remains the dominant policy goal for private philanthropy and public policymakers in spreading innovation.