Making It Scalable

"Is this model scalable?" It must be the first phrase they teach in education business school, along with, "How can we build capacity?"

In the game of education innovation, the objective is to find something that's working and then replicate it in as many different places as possible. I would argue, however, that the underlying assumption is fundamentally flawed.

In many businesses, replicating a production process successfully in one place and bringing it to countless other places is often quite doable. Training manuals can be written. The appropriate machines/processes are allocated. And the raw materials that enter the production process can be quality controlled.

The sheer number of variables that impact the quality of a school's "production process" often far exceed those of many private businesses - one more argument against those who think the public education/private business analogy is appropriate.

I sincerely question any excellent school's "scalability." Unless the students who attend, the staff who lead and instruct, the parents and community members who support, and the culture of the school can be replicated, I'm inclined to roll my eyes every time I hear a suit from the DOE ask whether we're "scalable."

That excellent schools simply aren't scalable is precisely why we need highly competent people working in public education. Learning from what other people have done is one thing. Thinking through the challenges of applying what you've learned to your context with a group of capable professionals is entirely different, and significantly more challenging. And that's not what's meant when most MBAs who've chosen to work in education ask if a model is scalable. Instead, they're looking for a quick-fix solution. It's as if they think there really is a secret to success out there that either hasn't been discovered or appropriately scaled yet.

Often, when excellent models for schools are developed, they're done in contexts that simply aren't replicable. When replicating them is attempted, however, consideration for what made them special in the first place is often lost, and strict mandates for how processes must occur in the replicated models are imposed. This is why I'm inclined to hope that anything that's good for students is hidden from the DOE.  The NYC educational bureaucracy, led by folks who never actually worked in a school, is likely to horribly misapply anything decent across the board in a desperate search for higher test scores.

"Making it scalable" wrongly assumes schools can function like an assembly line. It wrongly assumes the human capital in schools should be good for nothing more than following directions (it's only in leadership they seem to think critical thinkers should exist). And it wrongly assumes schools actually are scalable.

What if we were actually willing to invest in competent, capable people closest to the students? What if we asked those people to do the hard problem solving about how to make education work?

I guess that would be more expensive...


  1. This problem of using the corporate model (Gates, Rhee)in public schools will ultimately be exposed as a failure. When that happens hopefully people will analyze how the architects of these ideas and reforms failed to properly educate themselves in the ground level activities that make schools work and the history of public education in this country. Only in my 4th year in teaching it is already crystal clear the major problems with the corporate models. But I guess that's what you get when you have people with no experience as successful teachers/administrators (Gates, Rhee) making education policy.


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