I recently read a post by Larry Cuban about the difficulty of “scaling up successful reforms,” and I was reminded how much I dislike the application of industrial terminology to schooling. Larry offers some examples of successful efforts to “scale up,” but I question the effort itself.
While it is possible for schools to adopt and adapt a program or a practice that has worked out for others, the very idea of reproducing cookie-cutter schools designed to get high test scores invalidates the professional wisdom of educators. You can stamp out cars and tools with the right equipment, but you can’t reproduce good schools via mechanical processes.
People who work in business, industry, finance, or the tech sector like to speak of “scaling up,” of “innovation,” of “best practices,” and of “replication,” which they know how to do.
They are frustrated that success in one school is not easily packaged and replicated and scaled up to every school in the district, the state, the nation. They can’t believe how difficult it is to identify and package “best practices.”
The concept of “innovation” is also overrated. It is not innovative to introduce charters and vouchers and for-profit management. All that changes is who gets the money.
One of the reasons the corporate reformers have poured so many millions into KIPP is that KIPP has produced a scaled-up model. There are 150-200 KIPP schools, and they follow a model that is unvarying. The reformers are looking for a template that can be scaled up everywhere.
One of the reasons that corporate reformers want to put kids on computers is that they think this is the way to standardize and replicate and scale up “success,” even though sitting in front of a computer for several hours a day is not what most parents or educators think of as good education.
What they don’t understand is that there are areas of life that are not susceptible to industrial processes.
Can we scale up good families? We know what a good family looks like. Why can’t we make every family look like that? Can we scale up churches? Churches may grow into mega churches, but every church is different, even if they use the same Scripture and liturgy.
We cannot scale up great orchestras. A string quartet will always require four musicians, and there is no way to implement cost savings, or get productivity gains (this is known as Baumol’s Effect). Reformers themselves want their children to have a human teacher with a small class, the smaller the better. But when they think of “scaling up,” they look for mechanical replacements for humans, to cut costs.
Wherever creativity is required, wherever human interactions matter, scaling up remains elusive because it is an industrial process, not a human one.
We have many examples of excellent schools in the public and private sector, and they are very different from each other.
They are successful because of the culture they have created, usually one of respect, ethical behavior, collaboration, and shared values about learning and self-discipline.
You can describe the culture and you can admire the tone of the school, but it is impossible to scale it up to 1,000, 5,000, 99,000 schools.
Teachers can learn from one another. Schools can learn from one another.
They don’t get better by competing. They get better by sharing. Sharing is not the same as “scaling up.”
There will never be a school-in-a-box that works everywhere and produces love of learning, creativity, and all the good things we want for our children and our society.
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