And the bigger question, the more frustrating question that many of us kept coming back to throughout the day, is does it scale? I asked Chris last night if Philadelphia is now looking at SLA as a continuing experiment or a model. Without hesitating he said “Oh, god, I hope it’s not a model.” Grrrr… I understand why not, but I think there are a lot of folks here who are looking for those concrete takeaways that help them get from where they are closer to here. And, that are at their core hoping the answer is that it’s just not possible to do without building from ground up.
I had the opportunity a few years ago to sit in on a whole series of conversations about scaling up school reform between true heavyweights in the field. My primary takeaway from that experience was that nobody knows how to consistently scale up reforms at even the district level (there are only a handful of good examples), let alone nationally. Since then, a lot of investment has gone into Charter Management Organizations (CMO). Dean Millot recommends Expanding the Reach of Education Reforms and Quantity Counts: The Growth of Charter School Management Organizations for more on these subjects. Both books are available in full for free online. The point is, these are questions that have been heavily explored and researched over the past decade or so.
I'm a little unclear on Will's last sentence. Does he mean people would like to be left off the hook by feeling that they can't change an existing school? Or that they would like to hear that change in their school is possible? I'm just not sure. Certainly at least some of the people at the Gates Foundation decided that trying to change existing schools is a lost cause; I don't think there is any doubt that it is harder than starting fresh. Also, I've seen no evidence that creating model schools has any impact whatsoever on the other schools in the district.
At the same time, the reasons for SLA's success don't seem too obscure. A principal who is has a strong, well-informed pedagogical vision for a learning community and is a savvy politician. Ample resources to plan the school; hire the staff freely; a good physical plant and ample instructional resources; small scale and gradual (one grade at a time) scale up; a reputation that draws motivated students. Also, what I've seen at SLA is in line with this research:
In an award-winning study of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Dr. Leana found that in the schools where teachers talked to each other the most about their jobs, and where the principals did the best job of staying in touch with the community, students had noticeably higher reading and math test scores.
So I think in particular what Chris is saying when he says "I hope it is not a model" is that imposing the mechanical and textual features of the school wouldn't work. The secret sauce is not here. If you told me my school had to adopt SLA's list of values I'd be like, "Dude, those values aren't even values." But it is something that they came up with for their community, and it works for them, so who am I to quibble. And I think Chris would argue that other schools should find their own way to articulate what they value, not copy theirs.
Ultimately, we seem to have painted ourselves into a strategic corner where, given the facts on the ground in US education politics, "Does it scale" has no right answer. All our options are bad ones. Kind of like in Iraq. Tactical success is possible, but the big picture is just FUBAR.