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Scale: What Have You Done for Me Lately?

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By Sajan George, CEO, Matchbook Learning

The Internet over the last two decades has unleashed a proliferation of technology-enabled solutions whose scale as measured by the adoption rates of users has been unprecedented.  Pre-internet, scale was something that was intentionally planned, systematically developed and executed over many years. Unlike today's tech giants, growth stories of pre-internet start-ups like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, and General Motors have had long periods of time (many years) that elapsed between their first store or factory and their second.  

Education is subject to these same kinds of discussions of scale even if our playground is much more modest in size. Start a charter school, and it is not long before a philanthropic funder or authorizer will ask about your expansion plans. Launch an edtech solution and you'll need some hockey stick-like growth projections within the first two years of launch in order to sustain venture capital interest.  

I recently discussed this topic of scale with Jenny Davis Poon, a friend and board member of mine. We wondered whether it needed a kind of redefinition for education. Jenny pointed me to an article that was first published in 2003 by Cynthia E. Coburn, a professor from the University of Pittsburgh titled "Rethinking Scale:  Moving Beyond Numbers to Deep Lasting Change".

Coburn conceptualizes scale along four dimensions:

  • Depth: This dimension refers to how embedded the change is in a given school. Coburn believes depth should include the extent to which it changes teachers' beliefs, norms of social interaction in the classroom and underlying pedagogical principles. Depth dimension goes much further than simply counting the total number of schools to which a particular reform has scaled.  
  • SustainabilityThe second dimension, sustainability, involves persistence and can only be measured longitudinally.  What happens to the reform idea or change when leadership, personnel and funding change over the years?
  • SpreadCoburn states that rather than measuring whether a particular school district's reform is spread to other districts, or spread within an existing school or classroom is another way to consider scale. How has the reform expanded to district policy, funding allocations, professional development, teacher observations, etc.?
  • Shifting Reform Ownership: The final definition of scale measures the extent to which the reform that started from an external source or leader is then adopted by teachers who have the capacity to deepen, spread and sustain the reform themselves. This may be the hardest dimension of scale to achieve. I think back to some of the most dynamic, charismatic urban superintendents our country has ever had who were followed by leaders who neither sustained nor deepened their predecessor's reforms.  

Many of you may recall pop singer Janet Jackson's third solo album from 1986, which featured the opening hit single "What Have You Done for Me Lately." That hit led her career to a new trajectory of international solo stardom.

Scaling in education requires a similar kind of new trajectory setting.  We rush to scale reform ideas, technologies and (I dare say) school models on the thinnest of metrics that can be considered scalable.  As the title of Coburn's article captures, we need to rethink scale and move beyond numbers to profound and lasting change.

Scale today tends to dismiss the giants companies of yesterday (McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, GE) and idolize the more nimble tech giants of today (Facebook, Uber, Apple).  However, today's tech giants have displaced other s that were atop the leaderboard just a decade ago (i.e. IBM, Microsoft, etc.), which themselves replaced the prior decade's tech giants (telecoms like AT&T and Nokia). Given the headlines of late, there's no guarantee that today's tech giants will be atop the leaderboard 10 years from now. Technology-enabled solutions have a way of being disrupted due to incumbent entrenchment--and this almost always gives way to new innovation over the long term.  

Maybe those that have scaled more slowly and deeply have the more lasting change after all.  

We just may need to be more patient before opening our 'second store.'  If we would stress test our scaling plans against the dimensions of depth, sustainability, spread and shifts in ownership, I wonder how many of today's education models and solutions would actually be considered successful at scale today? Would one single, deeply embedded, self-sustaining, community-embraced school enduring over multiple generations be far more valuable a contribution to society than a particular model that scales to 10, 20 or even 30 schools as long as the current leader/leadership is present?  

These questions are perhaps only best answered in hindsight over many years.   Coburn rightly points out that research studies usually separately investigate sustainability--if at all--independently of scalability, obscuring the fact that scalability depends on sustainability. Of the 44 studies Coburn looked at regarding scale in education, only 18 studies looked at reform efforts that had been in schools for at least four years.  

If the promise of public education in high need, high poverty areas is to deliver a community's next generation from that cycle of poverty that may have lasted generations, then shouldn't we design schools that last for multiple generations?  Multigenerational problems require solutions that are multigenerational in longevity. Find or design a single school that has designed the systems, processes, beliefs, policies and pathways for a student-by-student individual excellence in achievement regardless of its leader/leadership/personnel, and you will have the most impressive show of scale to which we can aspire.   

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