Breadth Versus Depth

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The "Scaling Up" series that has appeared in these pages over the last several months reports on the great difficulties involved in replicating and extending the good work of exceptional schools. "Going to scale is one of the killer issues now facing us," we read in the Dec. 14 issue. A Nov. 2 subhead tells us: "Educators have learned how to create good schools. Now, they're struggling to make them a reality for every student."

Yet an accompanying eight-page table of national networks in the Nov. 2 installment includes 36 collaboratives, of which 17, by my count, encompass more than 100 schools. If scaling up is so daunting, why do farflung networks abound today?

Rallying support for expansion is not hard, in my view. In fact, it is too easy. Premature expansion of promising young reform initiatives is a greater danger now than the lack of diffusion. Reform a mile wide and an inch deep is the upshot.

Breadth is exactly what many players in the game want:

Foundations expect wide dissemination of the innovations they underwrite. Systemic reform is much more appealing than working the miracle in a few sites. For instance, one funder of a prominent national network yearned to see 5,000 member-schools within five years (the actual growth, a more modest expansion from 50 to 900 schools, both exhilarated and exhausted the founders).

Legislators expect a "pilot project" to expand or fold, not hold steady. If it's good, move it out. If it isn't good, don't waste tax dollars. As a Delaware budget analyst said, "You can't tell a legislator, 'We have this wonderful project in four districts, but the other 15 cannot have it."' Do that and they'll vote for other pilot projects that will serve their constituents, he predicted.

Governors prepare budget requests so far in advance of final approval that they propose expanding a pilot project before they (or anyone else) truly know how good it is. In September, a governor may have to decide whether or not the first nine months of a pilot justify his bid to increase funding for its third year. The project has barely begun, yet the budget timeline forces an early decision on expansion. Focus on a few schools would be interpreted as retreat, not a search for depth. If after one year a governor capped the dollars or rejected new recruits, he'd be seen as sending a message that this project isn't expected to succeed and is on the way out.

The schools favor breadth. They want some of the extra money and good publicity awarded to the original members. They realize that the admissions requirements are generous--it is remarkably easy in this country to join local and national reform networks, with willingness to try and good intentions more crucial than past accomplishments or current achievements. They also know that few schools are ever suspended or dropped later for lack of progress. "This probably can't hurt, and some good may come of it." That spirit is not one and the same as enthusiastic commitment to an instructional revolution, but it is a realistic assessment of the incentives for breadth.

In the face of those pressures, do the leaders of national networks stand firm in defense of depth? Certainly they want to see "lighthouse" schools that can bear witness to the practicality of their theories. Pacesetters which cannot be brushed aside as lucky accidents offer existence proofs--if the professor's ideas take hold, skeptics can visit to see that it is possible to do what his writings claimed.

Why is it then that many prominent reformers inadvertently promote breadth over depth? Is it simply the combined pressure from the foundations, legislators, governors, and schoolfolk? To some extent, yes, but that is not the whole story. Even if that pressure eased, other forces would still push toward breadth.

In the first year or two, many reformers begin to fear that none of their initial recruits might ever go deeper. Early progress is often slow, fragile, and divisive. Expansion seems necessary to bring in more schools for depth to have a good chance somewhere (even though the pioneer schools complain that the ensuing dilution of personal attention from the central staff hurts their prospects for going deeper). Necessity can be sold as a virtue: The valuable lessons learned from the well-intentioned first steps and false starts of the pioneers will benefit later recruits so much that their shot at depth will improve.

If the reform continues to grow and win respect, good press, and money, there will be irresistible opportunities for the leaders to join the national conversation on schooling, the well-publicized exchange of ideas among advocates often called (with respect or in scorn) the "gurus" of educational reform. Keynote speaker, "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" guest, blue-ribbon-panel chair ... exciting chances to shape the debate on education, and spokesmen who represent large networks of adventuresome schools find a readier place at the table than the individual hero.

In the national conversation, the main task is creating and sending messages to the country about what education should be, not nurturing a pacesetter school to sustain its momentum. The counterpart in the states is the conviction that a pilot project is basically a wake-up call to every school to rethink what they do. In both cases, the advocates seek as broad an audience as possible. And the rationale is hard to reject--if the attitudes in the wider world don't eventually change, then the pacesetter schools will never survive.

But the most seductive appeal of breadth is the belief that breadth is actually a form of depth. Nearly every prominent project reaches a point where it can bid successfully for large grants that add new components to the original work. The principled argument is that the underlying ideas and goals remain the same. The practical side is that funding for the older work gets harder and harder to raise, so new dollars must be found.

The risk of the new work is overextension, reaching into areas at the margins of one's expertise. Sometimes the stretching turns out well--for instance, Foxfire moved into teacher education after a decade publishing student writing--but sometimes the results disappoint. Even if the new work bolsters old accomplishments, it always increases organizational complexity--fresh staff, more meetings, paperwork avalanches, and less time to spend in the schools. As the coordinator of a Delaware project once said, "If I ever have to hire a business manager, I'll take a gun to my head."

It would be nice if school reform were like the Travelpro "Rollabag," a compact suitcase on wheels easy to carry on airplanes. After sales boomed, other companies offered similar products. The edge of novelty wears off quickly in the small and highly competitive luggage market (also true in school reform, which is a marketplace). As with most successful small companies, the firm had two choices: Bring out new products (the national education-reform response) or sell out to the competition (the local and state education-reform response, where yesterday's rebel is often today's assistant superintendent). Travelpro decided to introduce new products. One was a hook-on attachment to the original bag; the other was a duffel bag on wheels. Both drew on the company's best work.

We need the equivalent strategy in educational reform if the urge to "scale up" remains so prevalent.

Vol. 14, Issue 20, Page 48

Published in Print: February 8, 1995, as Breadth Versus Depth
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