In Pursuit of Scale


You might have seen the editorial in the LA Times calling out the Gates Foundation for their history of involvement in setting the policy agenda for education in the United States.  It’s worth a read.  While I agree that no single interest group or foundation should be attempting to monopolize the discussion around priorities for public education, I don’t take issue with their attempts to spark improvement or encourage a reform-oriented research and policy agenda.

What is interesting about the article is just how difficult it is to pinpoint what works in education when it comes to reform.  Improving our education systems, at scale, is one of the most pressing and complex challenges we face as a country.  Everybody thinks they have the answer.  The Gates Foundation certainly did – and they learned the hard way how difficult it is to get systemic changes.  Zuckerberg certainly did in Newark – and he learned how inadequate 100 million can be in reforming a school system.

Some reformers use these failures as evidence that the education system simply needs to be dismantled.  That’s the message behind efforts to privatize schools using vouchers or dramatically increase charter school enrollments across the country.  I have to admit that I’m not opposed to thoughtful, controlled experiments in school governance and structure in hopes of identifying new ways to develop and sustain high performing schools for our kids.  And while I believe we have important lessons to learn from both charter schools and vouchers systems, in many cases, charter and voucher laws simply reflect an ideological hope that is not grounded in any real evidence.

But there is a more fundamental question at play, can you scale school reform?  Today, I found myself in an argument with a close colleague, Wes Kriesel, who leads the 21st Century Learning department in our district.  The conversation was sparked by Wes’ declaration that nothing is scalable in education – that it is such a relationship-driven endeavor that it can only improve classroom by classroom and school by school.  There are countless examples of reform initiatives that are carefully developed and piloted on a small scale by founders and designers that experience tremendous success, only to lose their potency when the initiative goes to scale. In essence, Wes and I agree.

Yet I can’t entirely agree that quality education can’t be scaled.  To admit as much seriously questions my decision to leave the classroom to become an administrator (my teacher readers are screaming – “yes!!!”) But perhaps my theory about what needs to be scaled is different.  We need to find ways to scale caring relationships that are filled with love and high expectations for what our students are capable of accomplishing.  We need to scale a diverse teaching force whose life experiences and values reflect the students and communities they serve. I think that is core to my work as a systems leader.

There’s no silver bullet.  We aren’t going to happen upon the Uber of education any more than we can reduce parenting to an app on a phone.  Technology can enhance the tools we have to work with and the horizon of what is possible – but relationships are still at the center of the work we do.  We are still social animals, and relationships are notoriously hard to scale.


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