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I recently read an article entitled, “Education’s Status Quo to Parents: How Dare You Use the Parent Trigger and Make Decisions!” on the blog Dropout Nation.  I won’t get into the details of the article, which was about the uproar over a private company helping parents in California use the “Parent Trigger” to call for the closing of a failing elementary school.  Rather, a comment by the author of the post grabbed me.

We had been engaging on various points back and forth in the comment area and one of my comments claimed that many of these privatized charter schools are not scalable. They cannot replace traditional schools on the larger scale. To which the author, RiShawn Biddle replied,

The obsession with scale, both among traditionalists and school reformers, from where I sit, fails to consider what actually happens in the real world. Which leads to another point: Your concept of a “corporate” approach is rather false. In the corporate world, there is rarely full standardization; companies will approach their operations, markets and array of products and services differently. Proctor & Gamble is different from Colgate-Palmolive and from Unilever. All are successful in the space in which they compete and satisfy the needs of their customers. Same is true for Apple and Microsoft. What these companies do have in common is what all successful companies share (including strong talent development, and clear focus on product, service and customers). What each company does that is particular to its corporate culture and historical development will not work for others.

I stopped to think for a minute.

While I find it heartbreaking to think of students as customers and schools as customer service–first of all, this applies only to private schools with tuition, second, it’s a team effort so the road goes both ways.  I wonder about the argument, “it’s not scalable.”

We are constantly talking about how learning should be individualized, how we need to teach students, not subjects, how what works for one student may not work for another.  So why are we constantly seeking that one model that ‘works?’

As I stated in my comment on the post:

Privatized charter schools are not scalable. What IS scalable is giving ALL schools the freedom they need to educate students. Give ALL parents the power to make changes in their schools not because they are privately run charters, but because their school has the freedom to meet the needs of the community rather than bow down to district mandates.

There are a lot of ‘franchise’ type charter schools out there right now (Mastery, KIPP, Harlem Success and others), and I won’t expound on my feelings for some of them, but these kinds of school networks ARE trying to scale their model by taking over more and traditional public schools.  Whenever a traditional public school is taken over by a charter school, in my experience here in Philadelphia, the ‘no excuses’ environment and high expectation for parent involvement often causes huge attrition rates.  Where do these students go? Back to a traditional public school.

It seems that the more control the government wants to have over schools the worse off everyone is. In a district as big as Philadelphia, with over 200 schools, we have the federal government telling us what to do thanks to Race to the Top, and we are run by the state rather than an elected school board. We have programs that are mandated across the board for all low-performing schools (usually scripted programs) and decisions are made for sometimes all elementary schools across the board no matter what part of the city or what population the schools serve.

This is what scalability looks like.  And, as Biddle states, it doesn’t work.

So when will politicians, teachers, unions, parents and edreforms galore stop looking for the magic solution and understand that any organization that deals entirely with people is complicated and defies the logic of scalability? We need schools that serve the communities and children in which they stand, not the blanket mandates of districts and large network franchises.



  1. monika hardy


    love this Mary Beth:
    …any organization that deals entirely with people is complicated and defies the logic of scalability…

    thank you for all you are doing and standing for in ed..
    merry to you.

  2. Reply

    I know I'm late to this post, but I was just going through my reader and it caught my eye. I really do agree with that education is just not a "scaleable" business. The main reason is that it's never the program that makes the program successful- it's the people running the program. You can take things away and lessons learned, but trying to recreate the same program with a new set of people is terribly difficult and, I believe, counterproductive.

  3. Reply

    Last reply cut off my last thought, so here it is:

    I've always felt that the only scaling up we should be doing in education is the idea of unscaleability (not a word…yet???)!

  4. Reply

    Way to coin a word, Steve 🙂

    I fear that the move toward running schools like businesses will lead us toward "Walmart" school systems. I completely agree that a program is only as good as the people running it.

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