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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Elephant Hunting and the Question of ‘Scale’

By Rick Hess — March 19, 2015 2 min read
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Readers may recall that last Friday I penned a column titled “Thinking About ‘What Works.’” The response was gratifying, with some really interesting and thoughtful responses. One particular exchange was especially useful and I think it’s worth sharing, because it helps sharpen our thinking about one of the central challenges in education: the question of how to “scale” promising stuff.

The reader embraced the notion that many ideas may “work,” but that the most promising path is to worry less about replication than about how “to create the conditions for excellence and trust that solutions will eventually flourish.” He then went on to make the point more strongly, observing:

Ideas that have great promise may not be scalable at all. Every program head I have met talks about expanding and scaling. My first question is "Why?" I am repeatedly surprised at the lack of clarity in the response. What makes program x think the program is scalable at all? These programs are often led by dynamic people who have endless energy and keen instincts (think Wendy Kopp, Debbie Bial, Dave Levin, Jon Schnur, etc.). And even small programs have a dynamic principal or a set of teachers that are key to its success. Of course the key then is to nurture and find more of these people. But even when you do, aren't they going to suffer from the same limitations? They only have 2 arms, one head . . . Here is a story for you. We have done an analysis of all the high achieving underserved college guidance programs across the country. We found one in LA called College Match run by Harley Frankel. Here are their results: 53% have been admitted to an Ivy League University or its equivalent and 63% have been admitted to colleges ranked as high as UC Berkeley 95% have either graduated from college or are on their way to graduation College Match students raise their average SAT scores by 345 points. We approached Harley and asked what we could do to help him scale to NYC. His answer? "Find another Harley Frankel and I will teach him/her." Part of the problem . . . [is] a mentality that we have to have big solutions. Here is an analogy for you. In his interviews with Charlie Rose, Warren Buffett admitted that, given the amount of money he has (unlimited), and the time he has (limited), he can only consider "Elephants" to focus on—by which he means huge companies. I think the same is true of "big money" in the philanthropy/government world, particularly education. They have so much that they are in effect "forced" to spend [that] they always have to look for "Elephant" solutions.

I thought this was well said. In fact, the note made me think I’d been insufficiently clear on this point last week. When I suggested that our goal should be to create conditions where great teaching, learning, and schooling can flourish, I didn’t necessarily mean the goal was to surface solutions that far-seeing officials could “scale.” I think many successes may be so reliant on gifted leadership, coherent vision, personal relationships, local assets, buy-in, selective hiring, esprit de corps, and much else that broad replication will often disappoint. This is the difference between scaling simple solutions and scaling complex solutions.

There’s a reason that it’s so much easier to “scale” Orbitz or Priceline to serve tens of millions than to “scale” Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton to do the same. The task of scaling complex services while maintaining exquisite quality is much harder than scaling simple, automated services—and what good hotels do is a whole helluva lot simpler than what good schools do. The key thing is that localized solutions are still 100% worth doing . . . and that’s true even if these new schools, programs, and models are only going to help some children. Efforts are worthwhile if they improve learning and life for some children and families and point out ideas that can help elsewhere, even if those elsewheres are just going to have to generate their own solutions. (If you’re interested, I’ve written more about all this in chapter 1 of Common Sense School Reform and the concluding chapter of Education Unbound.)

While we want to create millions of jobs in this country, nobody pooh-poohs an employer who adds 1,500 good jobs. In fact, civic leaders, governors, and presidents will go out of their way to celebrate and highlight these small-bore successes. There’s an intuitive understanding that, in a free and open society, an accumulation of small successes can be the path to accomplishing big things. Now, don’t get me wrong—scalable solutions are great when they’re feasible.

But, more generally, the search for “elephants” has sometimes led those in influential roles in policy, philanthropy, and advocacy to lapse into the Soviet-style habit of being mostly interested in grand solutions, national targets, and majestic five-year plans. For better or worse (mostly for better, I’d argue), American institutions and governance are not conducive to such efforts (for what it’s worth, such efforts didn’t especially impress in the Soviet Union or in Cuba, either). The irony is that an admirable passion, sense of urgency, and desire for big solutions has led many to undervalue or even dismiss the kinds of prosaic, localized problem-solving that have been the backbone of so much American success.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.