Dilemmas in Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 2)

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.



Filed under school reform policies

17 responses to “Dilemmas in Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 2)

  1. David Patterson

    Larry, as someone who has worked a long time (4 decades) in education, from multiple perspectives (local state, fed, in and out of the traditional system) I think we miss the core characteristics of bureaucracies. In one sense, bureaucracies are like self-centered children/people – only concerned about what is “good” for them, in a short-term/immediate gratification sense. This core characteristic continually works to wear down those who seek to make a bureaucratic support a different way of doing something, through all the deadly methods of a bureaucracy such as being rule driven not values driven, reduce flexibility, short term focus and no recognition of a higher sense of purpose. In short, I suggest it is NOT about education, it is that we don’t know how to overcome the inherent challenges of bureaucracies.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    The solution of course is to “innovate” by eliminating the teacher and architecture of the school system altogether.

    As envisioned by KnowledgeWorks.org, all social institutions and some commercial settings are venues for learning, and potentially highly personalized.

    The prospect of de-schooling and outsourcing education is enhanced by the proliferation of teacher-proof curricula, automated data management and assessment systems, the availability of online credit systems, especially badges and certificates of competence.

    What is left? What is left is a social system freed from any obligation to acknowledge the intimate relationship between child care and education, the function of “school” as a bricks and mortar location for the socialization and education of each generation.

    Homeschooling may be welcomed by parents/caregivers who find employment in a gig economy and are not longer tied to a fixed workplace and work schedule (or dependable employer).

    Many who have relied on place-based schooling will be more aware of the function of this institution and the educator workforce as caregivers, especially in a society where the value of formal education is increasingly questioned (and openly disparaged). Schools as places for education may well be valued less for that function than as locations where you find a collective of nannies organized as caregivers for underage offspring for much of the week. Under this scenario, many adults are free to pursue work (and/or play) with few obligations to their own and other people’s children.

    The Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, the Emerson Collective, the billionaire members of the Education Strategy Group–all seeking a “collective impact” through their non-profit and for-profit ventures–are hell-bent on deschooling education, making it teacher-proof, and easy to scale up, especially through on-line delivery of content into screen-based devices (including mobile devices).Preschoolers who cannot read or write can now sign-in to such systems with a unique digital badge, then use simple gestures to be engaged in “learning” content developed by “the wizards of oz,” out of sight and enchanted with their algorithms as proxies for educational wisdom.

    • larrycuban

      What Ivan Illich sought nearly a half-century ago in his “Deschooling Society” sounds very similar to what you see occurring now. I wonder if his vision and that of Chan/Zuckerberg et. al. coincide. Thanks for the comment, Laura.

  3. Pingback: The Absurdity of Applying Industrial Lingo to Schools | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. It may be worth looking more deeply at the Summit Prep model by talking to the scores of teachers that are leaving after one or two years, unhappy with the de”personalized” model and the lack of teacher voice. There is an incredibly high teacher turnover rate which should be viewed as a severe critique of the current model. As a teacher in the Bay Area in a public school near Summit charters, I hear countless stories from highly motivated and strong teachers who have left to teach at neighboring public schools. Unfortunately, these are the voices we don’t hear. The Facebook money is helping to prop up Summit schools in its current iteration, but the original school was local, teacher-led, and an on-going evolving work of professional teachers with the community. The scaled-up version is corporate and empty of its original vision of a school built on human relationships. It serves a greedier purpose of evolving a computer interface (the personalized platform) to be tested on students, marketed, and sold to others.

    As some of its recruits, as well as those who leave, are Stanford STEP grads, it would probably be easy to reach out to several who went through the churn of the Summit Prep mill.

  5. My district {(8,000 students), semi-urban, 50% latino, lesser amounts of African-American, Asian, Pacific Islander, White}, hired a brilliant duo of educational leaders about five years ago. He, the new superintendent, was literally brought up to be a Super (as was his father). He gradually gained experience moving from a small, rural district (“I did everything from drive the bus to pay the bills”) to increasingly larger places. She had experience as teacher and administrator at every level including a stint at the Buck Institute (Problem-Based Learning). No two more able leaders could have been found anywhere IMHO.
    They soon set to work with the goal of providing district teachers with the tools to make us a model district. First try was a ‘Scaling Up” effort. Seventy five teachers volunteered to try out Problem Based Learning. They met periodically to learn the system and to create an environment of cooperative learning among teachers. At the end of the year all district teachers were invited, not forced, to view summaries of the 75 projects in the high school gym.
    The hope was that these 75 ‘innovators’ would become proselytizers for a new way of teaching.
    Didn’t work (again IMHO). Despite everything the district did to avoid top-down impositions the teachers I spoke to nonetheless took it that way. Several of my friends quickly left the district. They complained that they didn’t feel the district listened to them. As far as I can tell not one of the innovators become an advocate for PBL, those that are still around. The district is still trying to persuade teachers of the wisdom of a PBL approach but without much success. This year we are moving to a modified block schedule in hopes that the longer periods will induce teachers to use projects.
    As far as I can tell our leadership did everything right, yet they haven’t been able to significantly influence what happens in the classrooms, which remain mostly lecture-based systems.
    I wish I had some sort of wisdom to impart about all this.

    • larrycuban

      After all of your experiences and thoughtful reflections on those experiences,Jerry, you must have some hunches as to why the district leaders’ avoidance of top-down imposition of PBL and sensitivity to teacher wishes, that is opting for teacher voluntarism, has not worked in scaling up PBL. What guesses do you have?

      • {Sorry for the delay. I’m cavorting in Cyprus.}
        My theory is about implementation. How can teachers use Problem Based Learning if they aren’t trained to do so? A system was set up where the 75 innovators were pulled from their classrooms (arrgh, the teachers didn’t like that) and given a series of all-day trainings. I didn’t go (I learned in the Navy, never volunteer!) but I can guess what these were like: lots of PowerPoint, lots of lecturing. One of the great ironies of teaching = you are supposed to learn student-centered practices by watching someone talk.
        The thing that was lacking (and continues to be lacking) is the ability to ‘read’ the teachers, to see in their eyes that they are not with you. Smart people who know what good teaching should be, they are the great danger. Our smart, well-meaning admins never have gotten that, they just keep talking, expecting everyone to see the light.
        What might have worked? Give the teachers a one-day class where they were given the basic idea about PBL and then told to work together to develop some ideas. Then leave them alone–have someone available to answer questions–and see what happens.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Jerry, for getting back to my question. Your answer about how to get teachers who want to do PBL to best learn how to do it in their classrooms is so often overlooked because it takes more time and energy of those charged to make it happen in classrooms. Efficiency drives so much professional development. Enjoy the rest of your vacation.

    • I am well versed in the PBL model, and use it to help me structure some lessons and units of study. However, I can see that there would be reasonable problems, as well as resistance, in creating an entire school or district based on the Prject Based Learning approach. PBL is exceedingly time consuming in its preparation, hard to do well, and does not respond to every type of learner in our classrooms. My classes are often filled with individual choice and group projects, however, I appreciate the fatigue that sets in for many students when faced with constant choices and group dynamics in multiple classrooms. Sometimes they are thrilled to get a more “rote” lesson with a lecture, a worksheet, right and wrong answers, and lots of quiet time.

      As a learner in my local community college I remember being in a Physics lab class with a teacher that was known to be the progressive “project driven” teacher. I found his class and his style to be chaotic, unclear, and geared more toward the young men in the room than the young women. When I went to my main Physics professor to discuss my issues with the lab teacher’s approach, he told me of another lab professor who ran a strict lab class that followed every lab assigned in the book precisely, with concrete pre and post lab lectures. I changed labs and became more motivated and challenged with the intense focus required by this particular teacher.

      My point in discussing this example is that Project Based Learning may not be the shift that we need. The teacher’s ability to engage and challenge the students’ minds needs flexibility and numerous educational strategies. Students are still responding humanly to teachers and their overall skills and personalities to engage them. I’m sure that there were some shifts in teaching and student engagement in response to the pedagogical shift implemented in this particular district. The excitement generated by multi-year professional development and teacher collaboration is always beneficial to students. However, I see the shifts as necessarily slow. I enact more projects and more group worthy tasks than my own teachers did 30 plus years ago. My own students will take what worked well for them in their own education and will reconstruct how they understand teaching and learning to be in future generations. Culture spirals with generational wisdom and novelty. Education follows this path. My hope and expectation is that my own children are exposed to many different types of teachers and peers and educational experiences. I don’t think I would trust a school that said all of its teachers practiced “PBL” or “personalized” computer device learning, or any other novel or antiquated approach. I think it may be better to accept that there’s more “right” about current and historical practices than rapidly adopting and scaling up whatever “avant-garde” educational tool or approach is currently being touted.

  6. Chester Draws

    There are two other issues.

    One, touched on with respect to PBL above, is that many reforms are successful, but only at the impossible cost of teacher time and effort. Any reform that requires humans to suddenly become harder working and caring more is a reform that over time will fail. To be a successful reform it needs to work with actual humans, not the humans we would want to be. If proponents say “you need the right people”, then it is not going to work in the long run, because “the right people” is something you simply cannot guarantee.

    Another reason is reversion to the mean. If ten different reforms are tried, one will out-perform the others merely by luck, A happy confluence of teachers and students perhaps. That luck won’t continue. It’s not that the scaling up doesn’t work, it is that the original reform wasn’t actually that successful to start with. You’d think Maths teachers would understand that, but they don’t.

    Meanwhile some schools out-perform others on a consistent basis, just by doing some simple things well. Good discipline; a culture where failure is accepted but not excused; knowledgeable teachers; no fancy teaching styles. Those schools are not considered suitable for “scaling up” oddly.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Chester, for your comments. I thoroughly agree with your first point–historian Larry Cremin made the same point about the early 20th century Progressives who sought to shift traditional teaching to student-centered instruction. On the second point, regression to the mean and randomness,the two points you make in the second paragraph, both come into play but they do differ from one another as explanations for how hard it is to scale up so many school-based reforms.

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