Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Does It Scale?


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.


Bill Fitzgerald said...

The specific solution might not (and probably will never) scale, but the process by which they arrived at the solution could --

As I see it, that's part of the promise of schools like SLA. Chris and his faculty have come together to create a school that does great things for kids. While a lot can be learned from looking at their curriculum, their schedule, etc, those are the end products of their process; the answers (at least for now) to the questions they asked as they were building the school.

What's more important is: what questions did they ask? What problems did they try and solve?

That process is the piece that can be replicated, and can allow a "model" to flourish in different environments.



Tom Hoffman said...

Well, it depends on your definition of "scale" really. Part of the problem is that now for an urban superintendent "scale" means "turn around the test scores in three years." If scale means "can be reproduced by small groups of likeminded individuals in other schools and places" then yeah, it can scale.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

RE: Well, it depends on your definition of "scale" really.

Absolutely -- and this is where the act of defining process becomes part of the process of change --

If you're asking the wrong questions -- and I would classify "will it turn around test scores in 3 years" as almost the textbook definition of the wrong question -- you reduce your chances of getting great results. Sure, even the worst of plans can have some positive outcomes, but this happy accident needs to be recognized as exactly that: a happy accident.

By "scale" I mean, roughly, a process that can be reproduced successfully by large numbers of other schools and districts. They don't need to be like-minded, but it doesn't hurt.

If something can only be done once, then it becomes an interesting story. If something can be replicated in meaningful numbers, then it makes the transition from a proof of concept to a model.

A process-oriented model isn't such a bad thing, especially when we are seeing such a strong emphasis on test results as the primary arbiter of a school's success.



Chris Lehmann said...

Well, on an interesting note and very relevant, I have a friend here in Philly who is going to have a similar opportunity as we had here. The school will have a very different thematic mission, but my friend has a very similar pedagogical outlook and probably more chops than me as far as deep-rooted core beliefs about education.

So we're opening up our books and our planning docs and every question / blog post / journal we all did to share with the new school. And the goal isn't replicating SLA, but rather looking at our process so that the new school team can learn from it, make it better and use what makes sense as they move forward.

(And sorry for all the non-gender specific language and such. As soon as this is public, I'll write more about it.)

And I agree that our core values aren't "values" in many sense of the word, but I've struggled with what else to call them. Habits of mind doesn't quite work... our core processes? I don't know... the long answer is that that is the iterative process by which we learn here. But "values" works as a short hand for that sentence. Am I missing a better one-word short hand for them?