Scale What?

Student impact at scale is the panacea for those of us who have devoted our careers to improving K-12 education. We desperately want to make a difference in the lives of all students, and although it’s always heartening to see small pockets of success in individual schools and classrooms, we are always seeking ways to catalyze a massive, nationwide improvement in student learning. Scale must be the solution.

As it relates to the emerging area of Personalized Learning (PL), I am often asked how to achieve massive scale, to which I respond, “Scale what?” The reality is that this work is nascent, and while there are promising approaches emerging that combine blended instruction with competency-based progressions, none of the models are yet ready to scale across thousands of schools and millions of students. The reason is that our bar for massive scale must be sustained, replicated results across a diverse array of schools over a period of several years, which we do not (yet) have.  

Even though no single PL model, aside from 1:1 mastery-based tutoring which is prohibitively expensive, is ready to be scaled, we should not just sit on our hands and wait for magic to happen. Instead, states, districts and charter networks should consider a framework for approaching scale. I suggest a three-tiered approach:

  1. Start by scaling only foundational elements (a.k.a. building blocks) that allow all schools to pursue innovations if they so choose, while at the same time piloting bold PL designs in a limited number of early adopting schools,
  2. As data emerges from the early pilots AND those schools that experimented on their own, begin to spread/replicate the most promising approaches (defined by impact on student learning) to more schools (note: how to do this effectively is worthy of another blog post, if not a book), and
  3. Scale only the instructional practices or school models that produce sustained results over a period of multiple years.

With this framework in mind, below is a way that states, districts and charter leaders might divide those activities that are ready for scale versus those that are not:

Scale Now

  • Design principles that provide some direction and guardrails around the innovations that you are seeking from early adopting schools and educators.
  • A comprehensive, trusted system-wide assessment and performance measurement system for schools with two key components: (1) a precise, multi-faceted definition of college and career readiness for each student that includes, but is not limited to, academic knowledge and skills and (2) the ability to accurately and adequately measure each student’s individual growth/progress toward that definition of college and career readiness on an annual basis, if not much more frequently.
  • Research and evaluation focused acutely on understanding the degree to which schools and the instructional approaches they adopt are having an impact on each student’s progress toward college and career readiness.
  • Technology infrastructure (e.g. broadband, Wi-Fi) that can adequately support a range of technology-mediated instructional models.
  • IT capacity to manage multiple types of devices (e.g. tablets, laptops).
  • Reasonable policy changes to allow innovative schools to pursue different types of models (e.g. proficiency-based graduation, seat time waivers, lifting onerous human capital rules).
  • Reasonable changes to procurement rules and adoption processes to give schools, teachers and perhaps families more agency in selecting digital and non-digital instructional materials.
  • Clear guidelines for schools that define the autonomies (e.g. budget, materials, assessment, staffing) they have and the outcomes they are being held to.
  • Software infrastructure (e.g. LMS, middleware) that creates the enabling conditions necessary for schools to adopt PL without forcing them into a specific instructional approach. Note: this one is particularly tricky because too often software locks schools into a particular instructional model.

Not Ready for Massive Scale Now (If Ever?)

  • Unproven instructional models: as I suggest above, few if any of the PL models that have emerged thus far are ready for widespread scale, particularly in the context of existing schools that have legacy systems and structures that often make change difficult. For that reason, I would caution any district or charter network against picking a single instructional approach and attempting to scale it across many schools.
  • Specific devices (e.g. laptops, tablets): the classic mistake districts and networks make is to scale a single type of device to all schools before they have designed the instructional model(s) that those devices will support. See Hardware is Not a Strategy for more of my perspective on this.
  • Specific digital content (e.g. adaptive learning programs): as with devices above, requiring all schools to implement content from a specific set of providers will inevitably stifle school-level innovation. That said, some districts (e.g. NYC) have centrally procured content from multiple providers and made it available to a group of schools, which is an interesting approach that retains school-level autonomy without sacrificing centralized purchasing power.

Seed Now, Spread with Results, Scale Only When Proven 

  • A limited number of whole-school designs: offer incentives for a coalition of the most visionary and eager among your school leaders – either new or existing schools – to pursue bold new approaches to PL. The expectation must be that these schools will pursue breakthrough results in learning growth and ultimately college readiness rates, but be realistic about the time required to iterate to achieve those results. Consider using the Next Generation Learning Challenges model for inspiration on how to structure a competitive school selection process.
  • Partnerships with promising 3rd party providers that have had success elsewhere.
  • Educator fellowships that allow a coalition of the willing to implement new instructional approaches in their classrooms. The expectation is that successful pilots in this initiative will ultimately lead to school-wide implementations in future years. CityBridge Foundation in D.C. and Chicago Public Education have sponsored these types of fellowships for teachers. 
  • Permission for school leaders and educators to test new approaches without being part of a formal system-wide program.

In sum, states, districts and charter networks can take critical steps today to encourage PL by setting the stage for schools and educators to innovate without jumping too quickly to scaling unproven instructional practices. Challenging as it may be to proceed cautiously, waiting to scale based on proven results is the wise approach for this movement and the students we aim to serve through it.


One thought on “Scale What?

  1. Great Article! I constantly have to remind myself that just because “I get it and do it” doesn’t mean that everyone else does. I’ve taken PL to a very high level in my school to the point where I am having to explain to the administrators what I am doing and they are asking questions of me like, “How do I know that my students are covering the skills and content?” When I show them the portfolios, the question is then, “I don’t get what is going on in your classroom?” How do I explain that each student has his/her roadmap that they create from choosing their own path. Each students’ goals are taken into account along with the students’ individualized learning style and personalized to their interests… it’s the last part that gets my administrators confused. It frustrates me that I am the lone person on the island… your article gave me some perspective! THanks!

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