Five Critical Conditions for Scaling up High Quality Educational Practices
How do we scale-up high quality educational practices? This basic question has challenged educators, policy makers, and technical assistance providers (like us) for decades. Today, the transition to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) gives this question even more urgency. Recently, we contributed to a series of discussion pieces called “Implementing the Common Core State Standard” that focused on sharing professional development approaches and ideas designed to support the implementation of the CCSS in mathematics. This series was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and the Institute of Advanced Study and is hosted by The Opportunity Equation. You can access our piece (authored by Drs. James Connell and Julie Broom) and the entire series here.
Of course, the question of how to scale-up isn’t original to education. In every sector there are examples of organizations who take a high quality product or service and achieves significant and sustained growth in its sale and use. In 1987 Starbucks was a single coffee shop in Seattle, WA – and, today it boasts more than 16,000 locations across 50 countries. What enabled Starbucks to consistently deliver a high quality product and service at such an immense scale? Let’s be clear – we aren’t comparing the coffee roasting industry to the field of education. However, we are asking the same basic question that faced Starbucks in 1987 – how do we scale-up the good things that we do?
If you aren’t familiar with our work (see here for background), a significant part of what we do is to provide professional development, technical assistance, and strategic consultation to schools and districts designed to initiate meaningful and lasting changes in critical educational practices. The cornerstone of this work is providing educators with intensive and sustained supports that offer our partners ample opportunities to experience, observe, practice, and receive consistent feedback on new practices. The challenge we – and any other educational organization working to initiate and support change – continually face is how do we bring these kinds of intensive supports to a much greater scale?
We have come to realize that simply expanding our capacity to provide these “thick supports” to more and more districts is not the most efficient or sustainable path to scaling up – either for us or our school and district partners. Neither will the powerful efficiencies and reach of technology fully address the need to convey the highly complex adult learning processes involved in changing core professional practice across widely diverse individuals and work settings. Instead, we seek a methodology to transfer our support approach and intellectual capital to other entities working with and within these districts—such as curriculum and instruction departments within larger districts, regional intermediaries and service centers, and state departments of education. We think that building this “local” capacity is the key to scaling up and sustaining changes in educational practice. It allows local education agencies – with limited and fleeting access to funding for outside supports such as ours – to become innovation support organizations themselves. In this way, a limited initial investment in capacity building provides significant return on investment as they become equipped to support, strengthen and sustain effective practices in their own systems.
From our experiences thus far we have seen very clearly (and painfully at times) that five critical conditions will either make or break this kind of capacity building effort. In this blog series we will be outlining these conditions and discussing the important lessons we have learned in our efforts to get them in place and successfully build the capacity of our partners. In this entry (Part One) we will discuss the first two conditions, and the final three will be covered in Part Two.
Condition One: Provide rigorous, meaningful and responsive learning opportunities to participants in the capacity building process; and
Condition Two: Ensure that your staff – including teacher trainers, leadership coaches and strategic consultants – commits the necessary time to deliver these opportunities effectively and thoroughly.
In all of our previous capacity building efforts, the will and skill was there on our part (along with our great modesty) to put these first two conditions in place. We developed and were prepared to offer three complementary learning opportunities to build our partners capacity: didactic seminars, field-based observation and reflection, and apprenticeship. In all three cases, we provided some of each type of learning opportunity, but at nowhere near the intensity, frequency or persistence required to meet the ambitious capacity building goals we had set out for ourselves and our local partners. Why not? In each case we used a local district we were working with as a “teaching hospital” where our capacity building partners could experience and observe the work firsthand. The challenge we continually ran into was that our focus on supporting our district partners in overcoming implementation challenges eroded our commitment to teaching the work to our capacity building partners.
LESSON LEARNED: If you’re having guests over for dinner use a recipe you’ve made before. When selecting the training sites for capacity building efforts, conduct a thorough needs assessment first to be as sure as possible that this partner site will present familiar implementation challenges. This will mitigate the risk of getting too focused on troubleshooting and supporting implementation at that site and short-shifting the time needed to provide high quality learning opportunities for your capacity building partners.
Coming up in Part Two: Identifying and retaining high quality capacity building partners – and more…