When you think about Microsoft, Apple, Google, Proctor & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, you think about the leading corporations in their respective technology and consumer products markets. You think of high-quality products and services that have helped their respective consumers live better, become more-productive and engage in entertainment and media on their terms. You think of recruiting processes in which entrepreneurial and savvy talents are brought in to innovate and improve products and services. And you think of high standards for developing products and services, delivering them to the public and improving them once they get customer feedback.
What you don’t think about is scale. You don’t expect Apple or Microsoft to duplicate the others governing philosophies. You won’t see either company embracing Google’s throw-it-up-against-walls technique for service development. You wouldn’t be surprised that Proctor & Gamble’s product management approach is in many ways dissimilar to that of Colgate-Palmolive. In short, these companies are as dissimilar in their proprietary methods as they are uniform in their high standards and rigorous approaches to running their businesses. And we should look at institutions within American public education in the same way.
One of the few fetishes shared by both defenders of traditional public education and the school reform movement is the pursuit of scale. The idea is that a new solution to the nation’s education crisis — usually an organization — will only be workable if it can be expanded from small scale to regional and (usually) national scope. Such thinking, borrowed from industrial companies of the 20th century, made sense at a time in which inputs and outputs were more important than outcomes, and the quality of education was hardly measured or even measurable.
But we don’t live in a world in which scale applies much to education anymore. Certainly there are elements of education — namely transportation, construction and school lunches — in which scale is critical; after all, the more students served, the easier it is (in theory) to bring down the cost of these back-office functions. But the nation’s education crisis isn’t a problem of operational scale; it’s a quality problem with its roots in low-quality instruction, abysmal curricula, shoddy academic standards and mediocrity in expectations for students, teachers, principals and parents alike. You can’t simply hire more teachers in order to solve the problem; the class size reduction-driven hiring boom of the past decade has already proven that. Nor can you solve the problem by building more schools or authoring more certification procedures. The fact that we now live in a world in which technology allows for instruction to be tailored to the needs of individual students also renders scale moot.
This isn’t to say that scale can’t be used in improving quality; expanding school data systems and applying Value-Added Assessment to teacher and principal evaluations are two examples of using scale to improve quality. Even the expansion of school choice (through the expansion of high-quality charter schools and voucher programs) can address some aspects of quality. But for the rest of the problems in American public education, scale is not the answer.
We already have a successful model of a scalable operation in education: The traditional public school district. It is successful in the sense that districts persist in existing and in the ability to raise large sums of money to build schools and buy buses. But based on the woeful data system problems within districts and the fact that just 69 percent of school buses are kept in operation throughout the school year, according to Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools, you can say that schools barely succeed in that arena. More importantly, districts fail in their ultimate purpose: Providing high quality education for all kids. This is the kind of scale we don’t need.
Another example of scale: Collective bargaining agreements and state laws that essentially protect laggard teachers and fail to reward high-quality teachers. These laws and contracts — artifacts of industrial-era thinking and a time in which teacher performance could not be measured — also amount to the kind of scale we don’t need. All in all, American public education has been extraordinarily well-scaled to fail our kids.
Yet traditionalists and school reformers continue to argue about which solutions are scalable, with debates as to whether such successes as the Knowledge is Power Program, Green Dot Public Schools and Teach For America can be replicated en masse, either by the organizations themselves or startups with similar goals. Certainly, KIPP, Green Dot and TFA have continued their success as they have expanded. But not every reform model will reach those levels of scale. The Harlem Link charter school in New York City has an approach that is unique to its roots and environs. This is also true for every successful traditional public, private and parochial school or system.
The obsession with scale, both among traditionalists and school reformers, fails to consider what actually happens in the private sector. Companies rarely do the same exact thing as their competitors and this is especially true when it comes to the most-successful firms in their respective markets. Proctor & Gamble is as different as Colgate-Palmolive, as Apple diverges from Microsoft. All are successful in the space in which they compete and satisfy the needs of their customers. They share similarities in terms of their success in talent development, and clear focus on product, service and customers. What each company does that is particular to its corporate culture and historical development will not work for others.
What does happen in the private sector is the creation of standards, the rules, regulations, principles and concepts that organizations accept in hiring practices, design principles and product safety. When it works (and it often does), these standards and expectations ensure that consumers get high-quality products and services. It is up to the companies to find ways to meet those standards. Companies that do meet those standards rise in esteem among customers and their peers; those that don’t lose standing — both in market position and reputation — in the marketplace.
This should be the same for the institutions in American public education. Rigorous standards in curriculum, in talent management and in performance should be applied to all. For K-12 schools, it’s recruiting, developing and retaining high-quality teachers and principals who are entrepreneurial, have strong subject competency and care for kids; rigorous and challenging curricula; and cultures of genius and high expectations in which the capabilities of kids to handle high levels of learning is not only recognized, but cherished. For ed schools and alternative certification programs, it’s recruiting high-quality aspiring teachers and developing rigorous courses for teacher training. How they innovate in getting there and meeting standards is up to them.
Essentially, it isn’t important for every alternative teacher training operation to look like Teach For America; what is important is that they all provide high-quality teachers. It isn’t necessary for every school to function exactly like Urban Prep; it’s important for them to improve student achievement and make sure that all their students graduate. What we need are a thousand flowers of high quality to bloom, not for all to look exactly alike. There will be different ways of getting there (even though there might be general concepts of what it should look like), but what is important is that the goal is met. Those goals should be guided by objective data. A high-quality teacher should be able to boost student achievement by at least 150 percent above expected growth (or 150 percent above a student’s previous growth level) and the same should be true for a high-quality school and principal; and students should be reading and comprehending above grade level by third grade.
This is why keeping and expanding the No Child Left Behind Act’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability measures is critical to reform. AYP provides a guide to developing standards and can help schools focus on what is needed to improve education for all children; it also serves to make school performance transparent and keep schools and teachers honest. It is also why Value-Added Assessment and standardized testing are also critical; they provide benchmarks for standards and accountability. It is why teacher evaluations must be based on student test score performance; you need objective data for objective standards. It is also why collective bargaining agreements and tenure must be ditched; you can’t achieve a culture of genius in education and high standards with contracts that treat all teachers as widgets with no regard to performance.
It’s time to end the focus on scale. Instead, we must address quality.