Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Do Feds Love Scalability?

It's time once again for the DOE's Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools  competition. 

This program nominally supports the administrations love affair with scalability. The scenario that has been alluded to time after time is this:
           1) Many charters experiment with many educational thingies
           2) One of the educational thingies turns out to be super-duper awesome
           3) Super-duper awesome educational thingy is reproduced in every school in America

So, on the list of values that reformsters have simply presented as virtues without examination or discussion, let's add scalability-- the ability to take a product or service and expand it to the national market.

Scalability is not necessarily a great idea. Take the Krispy Kremes story. Krispy Kreme donuts started out as a regional success story, donuts that were hot and fresh and far above ordinary mass market donutry. And then they decided to go national, and turned out the best way to move the brand across the country was to make donuts that were pretty much the same as other mass market donuts. It used to be that you could only find Krispy Kremes in certain areas, and when you did it was a special treat. Now you can find them everywhere-- but there's nothing special about them at all.

Here in Western PA we have a convenience store called Sheetz. They are awesome, and not awesome in a Doing What Nobody Else Can Dream Of way, but in a We're Doing What Everybody Is Trying To Do But We're Doing It Right Way. Sheetz are what every sad 7-11 Kwickee Mart Gas and Speedy Food place in the country want to be. And they have studiously avoided scaling up to national size, and have instead remained regional and awesome.

What are the great successes in scalability? Well, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, various other fast food chains. I'm trying to think of an example of a product or service that has been scaled up to the national level and which is also synonymous with the very best in its field, and.... I've got nothing. Instead, it would seem that a big lesson of scalability is that it requires easily reproduced mediocrity.

If customers want the very best, they don't generally look for a nationally-scaled business.

Of course, if we stop looking at scalability from a customer standpoint and start looking it from the business operator's perspective, scalability shines up prettier than a semi-attractive bar patron viewed through 3 AM beer goggles.

For business operators, scalability is absolutely great. It is a super-effective way to make more money, move more of a product that is produced with inexpensive standardization, and force the market to bend to your concerns instead of your trying to react to the market.

Scalability is great for business operators and provides good enough-ish service for the customers.

Why would we want that as a goal for America's schools? Under what circumstances would it make sense to say, "You know this is a great way to teach our students here at Local High School, because the program is scalable"? Why would I as a classroom teacher decide that a program I designed myself specifically to fit the exact students in front of me-- why would I throw out that program in favor of some standardized scalable pablum that is supposedly good for any classroom in the country?

Scalability is a value for entrepreneurs. It has no value for students, teachers, schools and communities. It's unfortunate that the DOE sees it as a quality to seek out and reward. I look forward to DOE grants for Programs Producing Extreme Boredom and Schools With Exceptional Disregard For Individual Differences of Its Students.

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