Scaling Up to Mediocrity: The Myth of Grow or Die (Part 1)

In this and subsequent posts I will look at the popular policy solution to improving chronically failing schools by pinpointing “good” schools that year after year do well and then policymakers and donors pressing the leaders of those schools to “scale up.”  What the phrase means–borrowed from the practical world of business–is that an elementary or secondary school deemed successful (using typical measures of high test scores, low dropout rates, students graduate and nearly all get admitted to college) receives pressure and funding to replicate what made that school “successful” across dozens of other schools (see here and here).

After all, in the business world, the mantras are “grow or die” and “bigger is better.” So a successful business–reaping profits annually–can create franchise outlets just like the mother business that started it all–think McDonalds, Roundtable, and 7-Eleven. The franchisee receives the brand name and a way of operating the business daily. In business and schooling, “scaling up” is both popular and seen as essential—see N-gram of the growth of this phrase in U.S. published materials since the 1920s.

These posts will argue that schools deemed “successful” by popularly accepted measures can (and do) lose by expanding their reach through trying to duplicate their “success.” Further, I will argue that there are individual “successful” schools that should continue as they are improving what they do yearly and avoid the Ebola virus of replication.

Grow or Die

Why do policymakers and donors prod “successful” school experiments to scale up? Because they  assume that “successful” schools can be exported to other settings and when that occurs school officials get economies of scale and increases in productivity. It is “good” education at lower cost. Goodbye chronically failing or mediocre schools. Scaling up, then, is a solution to the persistent problems policymakers have identified over the past three decades: failing U.S. schools.

“Scaling up” is the mantra that entrepreneurial policymakers, venture capitalists and donors pushing cash into schools not only expect from any “success” that their monies have produced but also demand of those who achieved “success.” The direction goes like this: You did a great job here, now do the same here, here, and here. If not, we can’t keep funding you. In public and private schools across the country, experimental schools get hosannas and media attention but experience strong pressures to expand.

This process of “scaling up” has a long history going back to the Platoon School  before World War I and the Dalton Plan in the 1920s when innovative, school wide programs spread across the U.S. Failure to replicate these innovations in other schools was an old story a century ago.

In the 1990s, “scaling” up “successful” models of schooling re-appeared and, sad to say, the high hopes of those deeply committed entrepreneurs a quarter-century ago went the way of their older cousins. This first post will look at Tesseract schools “scaled up” by Education Alternatives, Inc. and the scaling up of Edison schools. Both for-profit companies took their brand name and models of pedagogy, curriculum, and school organization that “worked” in one setting and tried to replicate them in districts that each company had contracted with.

Tesseract School

In 1991, South Pointe elementary school of 500 children opened in Miami (FLA). The Dade County School Board had contracted with Education Alternatives, Inc., a for-profit company, to operate the school using the Tesseract model. Developed by businessman John Golle in Minneapolis in two private schools, the model, as described by an enthusiast, had the following components:

The Tesseract model stresses active learning in every subject and true ownership of

learning by students. Teachers work with students to “plan, do, and review” their

learning activities. Teachers are gentle and nonintrusive and work with students to learn

how to learn, and learn how to make choices. No subject is fragmented–it is whole

language, and whole social studies. No workbooks or xerox sheets are used. Students

work together, learn about each other’s learning styles, confer, and review and make

presentations. Education is personal. Every student at South Pointe has a “mentor,”

either a parent or a recruited senior citizen. Teachers, mentors, and students together

develop the student’s personal education plan.

The Dade County Board ended the contract when test scores had not risen after a few years. EAI and the Baltimore City School Board contracted in 1992 to run a handful of schools. The School Board canceled the contract in 1996. In 2000, EAI, now called Tesseract filed for bankruptcy.

Edison Schools

Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of Channel 1–a for-profit venture in public schools that eventually nose-dived–founded the Edison project in 1992. He and his partners believed that they could get students to learn more and better than regular public school could and, at the same time, return a tidy profit to investors. According to an evaluation report:

Edison schools are organized by grouping 2 or 3 grade levels into academies. Within the
academies, the students are organized into multigrade houses of 100-180 students. The
students in each house are largely taught by the same team of teachers throughout the
time they are in that academy.


Edison Schools Inc. has a curriculum that includes reading, math, history/social studies,
science, writing, and world language as the core subjects, with classes in character and
ethics, physical fitness and health, music, dance, visual art, drama, and practical arts and
skills offered at various levels. Four methodological approaches to instruction are
reportedly used in the classrooms: project-based learning, direct instruction, cooperative
learning, and differentiated learning.


Edison Inc. was the first for-profit school-management company to be traded on a stock exchange. They got contracts from urban school districts (e.g., Wichita, KN; Philadelphia, PA, Ravenswood, CA) to  use their model of a “good” school to convert failing schools into “good” ones in other districts  but stumbled into one political difficulty after another  with unions, parents, and administrators (see here and here).

Their stock had reached a high of $40 a share in 2001 and then, as problems piled up, dipped to 14 cents later in the same year. Dissatisfied with Edison, districts began canceling contracts for financial, political, and managerial reasons. By 2005,  there were still 153 schools for over 65,000 students but the company was already dumping their school management business and had turned to  securing contracts to  provide tutorial services and other products districts wanted. By then, Whittle had found private lenders who aided him in converting the publicly traded company back into a private one.


Both business-driven models of Tesseract (EAI) and Edison Schools grew but died. They scaled up and nose-dived after a few years giving investors the Willies.

Are there stories of “successful” schools growing into networks and thriving? Yes. Think of the KIPP model (1994) that has grown into over 200 schools nationally with 88,000 students in almost a quarter-century. Or Aspire (1998) with 40 schools enrolling 16,000 students in two states. Or Summit Charter Schools network (2003) has eight high schools in California’s Bay area and the state of Washington. Slow and steady with careful attention to selection and training of staff, constant program monitoring, and building cultures that sustains the ideology of the school have led to some scaled-up schools. But it ain’t easy. The scaling up took a great deal of donor money, long-term stability in top staff, and exceedingly fine-tuned attention to each new school’s adoption of a torch passed on by the founders to the next generation.

So should a private school located in a predominately minority and poor neighborhood that has been, by all popular measures, a stellar school for over 20 years spread? Part 2 offers an answer to that question.





Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Scaling Up to Mediocrity: The Myth of Grow or Die (Part 1)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry—just a reminder not to forget about the Jesuit schools that have been “scaling up” since the 1500s. Cristo Rey is the latest model being used in poor, urban communities since the 1990s now that the original Jesuit high schools have followed the private college prep and tuition-driven model.

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