Moving the Big Needle in Education — Going to Scale

I hate it when I want to make changes in my life but I do not fully commit. Most of us are like that: “I will eat healthier, but one donut won’t kill me” or “I will get more exercise, but I can’t find the time to go to the gym”. When we do that, we’re destined for failure.

Fully committing to a practice in education is like that. In fact, one of the most intractable problems in education is the concept of Going to Scale. Boutique, non-scalable interventions abound in education. But as anyone in that world can tell you: it is one thing to implement an intervention with a targeted group of students but quite another to serve every student who could benefit. This is not to say that educational institutions aren’t doing a lot of stuff. But if you break it down, it is a lot of stuff for a few students (who likely benefit) but it is not moving the overall needle on student success.

Implementing small-scale interventions is a waste of time and resources: human, fiscal and physical. Knowing that these boutique interventions cannot go to scale is educational malpractice. It is not OK for educators to say, “look at all of the stuff we are doing!” when doing that stuff has minimal impact, is a waste of resources, and in the end, may make us feel good, even generating good public relations, but will not make the kind of difference in student success of which we’re capable. We can and should do better for our students, our community, and ourselves.

The benefits of going to scale are numerous. Most importantly, it is about improving student outcomes for everyone and not just the lucky few who are engaged in an intervention. And although when implemented there likely are intentions to scale up if successful, we all know the fate of good intentions. But what if we decided that no proposed intervention will be implemented unless it meets certain conditions? After all, the last car I purchased had to meet certain conditions: it had to be safe, reliable, get good gas mileage, have 4 doors, and not be red.

What if we applied the same kind of process to determine criteria for an intervention?

Our approach when consulting with an institution is to work through a criteria setting exercise that helps educators determine if an intervention is feasible. The criteria developed by the educational institution to which interventions are held accountable could be:

· evidenced-based: there is a body of research that demonstrates the effectiveness of the intervention

· adequately resourced, including space, staff, and equipment: instead of spreading resources around among a bunch of boutique programs, go big with just a few demonstrated successes

· will be delivered with fidelity: it’s tempting to want to modify programs to suit what you believe is your unique situation, but changing the intervention changes the potential for impact

· aligned to the problem we are trying to solve: too often we see educational institutions implementing successful programs that are not designed to address the problem they’ve identified

· will be delivered to all students who could benefit: there’s no need to pilot programs already demonstrated to be effective and designed to address the identified problem.

The above criteria are very simple and the process to set these is no different than setting criteria in our personal lives for our purchases, deciding where to eat dinner or even choosing a mate. It simply does not make sense to implement an intervention without considering our criteria for doing so.

Now, when any intervention is considered it must meet the established criteria. These criteria are considered immutable. This establishes a defensible, transparent process with a set of basic, clear criteria. Furthermore, as new educators cycle through any work group that selects and implements interventions, the criteria serve as orientation to the processes and procedures of the group.

In summary, our educational institutions need to make a fundamental shift in how they address improving student success. They need to start holding interventions to a set of criteria that increase the likelihood of moving the needle in a big way. And one of these criteria must be going to scale.

I would very much like your feedback. Send me an email at: Bphillips@iebcnow.org

Brad C Phillips, Ph.D., is the co-author of the new book: Creating a Data-Informed Culture in Community Colleges: A New Model for Educators, by Harvard Education Press (2017) http://bit.ly/2t9z3OI.