What Absolutely Can’t Get Lost in Scaling Up Schools

Scaling upBy Bill Henk –  There’s no question.  We have BIG educational challenges in Milwaukee.  VERY big ones in fact.  And we have big challenges in other urban and rural areas of our state.  For that matter we have problems in K-12 urban and rural schooling all across America.

You’ll get no argument from me that big educational problems require big educational solutions.  The only way we’re going to move the needle on  academic achievement in our country, state,  rural areas, and cities centers on making large-scale, systemic changes.

Theoretically, systemic change can occur in different ways ranging from a total dissolution of the status quo to identifying what currently works best and replicating those elements aggressively.  The replicable elements could be very diverse and include, among many possible examples, a particular curriculum, a behavior management prototype, an assessment or accountability paradigm, an academic intervention model, a professional development approach, a preferred alternative sector like school choice, a charter network, and even a single successful school or robust classroom practice.

Think of the approach as capacity building.

Today I want to focus on one aspect of capacity building, the popular notion of scaling up.  In my many conversations about schooling in Milwaukee, I often hear that “everything we do ought to be scalable.”  In other words, our community wants  the urban education problem tackled in a sweeping, profound, and momentous way.

For the most part I agree.  I’ve just been working at educational reform for nearly four decades, though, and my experience tells me that systemic change through scaling or any other method is much easier imagined than accomplished.  It’s not impossible by any stretch, mind you — just difficult to achieve overall and rarely rapid.

But there’s actually something else about scaling that I think requires additional qualification,  and it’s at the heart of this post.  My fear if that we’re losing sight of an important aspect.

What is it?  Well, I have to admit that my motivation for my commentary today derives from certain discussions I’ve had with community leaders when they dismiss desirable changes, because they are not pervasive enough to affect scale.

Say-WhatOne particular exchange stands out for me.  I was describing a school model with a marvelous track record of performance that I’d like to see implemented here.

Almost before I got started, the individual cut me off, and said, “That school will only help 400 kids; we need models in Milwaukee that are scalable.  We’ve got to be thinking impact.”  Just like that — a genuinely beneficial concept summarily rejected.

My response was immediate and no doubt emotional.  I looked the person square in the eye, and asked, “Do you realize what you just said?  That we would ONLY be helping 400 kids?”

But sadly true to form for me, I threw discretion and decorum to the wind and didn’t stop there.  I went on to say, “In my world every single one of them matters.  If we can change one life through schooling, we’re morally obliged to do it, because we  enrich the course of that family’s life trajectory forever.  How’s that rank for making an impact?” 

AWKWARD.  But hopefully justified, and perhaps necessary in this instance I think.

And yes, the person was somewhat stunned, but had plenty more than enough ego to weather my impassioned  rejoinder, especially because I subsequently owned that a nerve had been struck.

Confrontations notwithstanding, the bottom line for me is this:  as a society, we’re called to help school children one at a time.

Even when scaling up is our goal that’s the only way we’ll get there.

lend a hand

2 Responses to “What Absolutely Can’t Get Lost in Scaling Up Schools”

  1. 1 nickmcdaniels January 10, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you for saying what needs to be said. Every student matters. “Scalable” usually means profitable for a small group of charter vendors. What gets lost are the kids and the communities and the public part of public schools.


  2. 2 Allison D'Souza August 24, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    I love the hand in hand photo it is a beautiful.


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