Public Schools

Scale and Sustainability-What's a Funder to Do?


Whether you're employed at a small operating foundation or the world's largest grantmaking one, \”scale\” and \”sustainability\” are two words that have in all probability dominated lots of staff meetings. That's not surprising, since both are important indicators of an investment's impact. But exactly how will we decide whether something we fund is scalable and sustainable?

Five years ago, I ran the Chez Panisse Foundation, a company in Berkeley, California, that helps young people connect the things they eat to the health of the environment. Our goals for that Edible Schoolyard were ambitious: to redesign school lunch programs and make kitchen gardens in each and every school in America. The program's founder, author and chef Alice Waters, built a model program that integrated academic curriculum with hands-on learning. Holding to very specific design principles, Waters taken into consideration everything, in the way children worked together in the garden, to the way they cleaned up, to what they talked about while chopping vegetables. Today, there are only two official edible schoolyards, and the foundation (now known as the Edible Schoolyard Project) continues to fund the initial program in a Berkeley junior high school.

Was our work a success or a failure?

It depends. If the goal of the Chez Panisse Foundation was to replicate the model \”as is,\” we failed utterly. But when our goal ended up being to adopt, adapt, or perhaps reinvent the model, our work would be a wild success. The Edible Schoolyard made a movement that continues to grow. It has spawned a large number of kitchen gardens and inspired a large number of urban school districts to improve meals for his or her students. Today, all Berkeley public schools have kitchen-garden programs, and all sorts of students get freshly cooked meals with healthy local ingredients. In a nutshell, we transformed the machine in a single school district and made a model for the country.

Cynthia Coburn, a professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, has studied scale-the spreading of practices to greater numbers of people and organizations-and sustainability-the ability to conserve a change of practice over time. She says measuring a foundation's success at scale depends on three simple questions whose answers can vary with projects and alter with time:

  1. What are you trying to scale? (A program, framework, some design principles?)
  2. Who is the target audience, and what's the context for implementation and scale?
  3. What are you attempting to make happen? (Would you seek adaptation, adoption, replication or reinvention?)

Common Approaches to Scale

At the balance & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are five years into a 15-year technique to improve college readiness in K-12 education, and we're asking ourselves the questions. We are dedicated to supporting innovations that work not just a couple of times, but persistently-innovations that improve the lives of as much as feasible for as long as possible. Since launching our strategy, we've be deliberate about seeking solutions that travel well. It isn't always easy. There are pockets of excellence in U.S. education, but they don't spread as soon as we'd hope or survive so long as we would like.

As we try to overcome those problems, we've many userful stuff here about scale and sustainability. And we now realize that if we are likely to dramatically accelerate change in public schools, traditional methods to scale and sustainability won't work.

Grantmakers typically take one of three methods to scaling.

The first would be to fund an initiative that actually works after which phase it right into a growing number of sites. This strategy of \”piloting to scale\” is sensible; it's usually a good idea to try something out prior to taking it on the highway. Conditions can change along the way, however, and piloting needs time to work and limits investments to certain places.

The second strategy is to invest heavily to master an initiative in some sites, then spread the lessons with the hope that others follows. The Edible Schoolyard is an ideal illustration of this \”proof-point\” approach. The task will be smart about replication and also to be clear by what exactly is scalable. It's also worth noting that whenever you put a site on a pedestal in this way, others can knock it off. (\”Of course they were able to do that, given the money they were given!\”) Or the initiative can simply fail, sinking its perceived value even if it had absolutely nothing to use the site's larger problems.

A third method of scaling is to direct investments based on national, state, or district policies. We've seen again and again-through No Child Left Behind, teacher quality initiatives, and today Common Core State Standards-that the classic \”policy play\” can move many states and districts to action. Policy can often give funders their finest chance at systems-level change, but when it lacks evidence of success or support for implementation, it does not result in sustainable scaling. It could even cause backlash.

A Fourth Path: Disciplined Design

What we've learned at the Gates Foundation is the fact that achieving scale and sustainability often needs a fourth approach-one which i call \”disciplined design.\” Starting with a conceptual framework, or perhaps a group of design principles, informed by practice and research. Then you definitely support grantees because they apply these in a number of cases, monitoring implementation to determine what needs to be changed. Often, you find a lever that markedly accelerates the job. Notably, this approach gives practitioners-in our case, teachers-a strong voice: the educators themselves recommend changes based on their experience, and you adjust the framework or build out those components that seem to stay.

Disciplined design requires research and evidence, but it also welcomes new ideas and unintended consequences. It enables for messiness, iteration, and deep inquiry into what exactly works and why. When funders take a disciplined design approach, they connect dots (partners, programs, problems) on multiple fronts and examine individuals, systems, and networks as partners who're all important to scale and sustainability. They accept that scale is not a linear process and that sustainability doesn't happen by chance. Researcher Diana Laurillard, in her book on teaching and technology, says, \”Teaching is a design science in this way that it is aim is to keep improving its practice, in a principled way, building around the work of others.\” Shouldn't this kind of science be our approach as funders?

In using disciplined design to scale our work, we're learning several essential things:

Design matters.

No appear the approach, no initiative will scale well without thoughtful design. Some say that school contexts and teachers' experiences are extremely distinct they can't possibly use the same tools. Others reason that a great tool can function exactly the same way for everyone. The reality lies in the middle. The most successful tools-the ones that actually work best and scale best-hew to some consistent set of design principles and practices, but they are flexible enough so users can adapt them to their own needs. You must be able to help design the various tools, not only find out for their services. Tools (and frameworks) must be tested across a broad swath of users and organizations, and improved along the way.

One in our Gates grantees may be the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), something to help teachers design high-quality lessons. We started with a fundamental framework to steer growth and development of the tool. Teachers helped build out the framework, creating user-friendly tools according to it by co-designing tasks and templates and assisting to improve them. Their enthusiasm ensured that the project would spread-to places we never might have reached without one. In 2012, LDC and a sister project, the maths Design Collaborative (MDC), were taking hold in only four states. Annually later, they'd reached one more 130,000 teachers in 23 states.

Language matters.

If you'll need a network to be able to scale an initiative, we all need to talk exactly the same language. Teachers within the LDC make their own decisions by what texts and instructional strategies to use, however their vocabulary is consistent across all sites; a \”module\” along with a \”template task\” mean the same thing to any or all of them. Common language helped us scale LDC across a diverse set of networks and districts from Georgia to Colorado to California.

Time matters.

Users need time to incorporate new tools to their practice. Within our case, that means teachers need time throughout the school day to see with colleagues in their content area or grade level. We've funded several districts that are finding creative ways to carve out a minumum of one full day a week for their teachers to understand how to get better at the things they're doing. In a minimum of two of these districts-Fresno, California, and Bridgeport, Connecticut-this time has substantially increased teacher engagement and collaboration. This really is significant, because once the players tend to be more engaged, reforms are much more prone to be widespread, successful, and sustainable.

People matter.

People, not programs or institutions, would be the agents of scale. And these ambassadors don't have to be the actual leaders of a grantee organization. A teacher who's deliberate about improving, seeks out resources to do this, and shares what works could possibly be the most effective person to scale an invaluable tool. With the LDC, the educators we called \”founding partners\” carried the work across their networks and trained their colleagues at their schools. It's important to identify and cultivate these early adopters.

Networks matter.

It's more effective and effective to create and scale an initiative with predictable partners in addition to consider some adjacent networks. Early partners in education initiatives are usually state departments of education and college districts. But at Gates, we've increasingly relied on different types of networks. Our partners in the MDC and LDC included geographic networks like the Southern Regional Education Board, professional networks like the National Writing Project, and repair providers like Scholastic. Rather than investing in just 20 school districts to scale technical assistance and advocacy related to the Common Core State Standards, we invested in networks that reached thousands of districts. And that we see teachers as partners who are able to reach many more.

Stories matter.

\”Foundation speak\” too often separates us from one another and undermines our efforts to convey important messages. We invent new words to reframe the controversy, sometimes towards the detriment of our cause. What is the larger narrative? How's everyone framing the controversy? What are the values that underlie the issue we care so much about? Holding focus groups to border \”our\” issue, we neglect to listen to the themes dominating social and traditional media along with other outlets. By listening better, and understanding the influencers, we might capture a broader group of constituents and attract some unlikely partners. If we are to scale our work, our value proposition must resonate using the people we want to do that work-in our case, teachers and college leaders.

Markets matter.

Innovation is usually constrained with a insufficient resources or tools. Usually the reason is really a dysfunctional market: suppliers don't understand users' needs, or bureaucracy prevents them from reaching them. At Gates, we address both supply and demand. Often what suppliers require is better research about demand; they have to know more about what school leaders have to do their best work. With better information, we are able to create incentives for multiple players to fill these information gaps. We are able to hold design challenges, for example, or make equity investments. Funders can also hold convenings to connect users with innovators, then support rigorous evaluations of these innovations. With better market dynamics, we feel the best innovations will gain traction-and can scale.

We're Still Learning

As Coburn says in \”Spread and Scale within the Digital Age,\” there are four methods to scale: adoption, when organizations or people embrace something; replication, when they utilize it in a prescribed way; adaptation, when they modify tools for local needs; and reinvention, when they make use of the tools as a springboard for innovation.

Most foundations have sooner or later embraced replication; they would like to find a promising model and fund other sites that can implement that model faithfully. Initially, this was the path from the Chez Panisse Foundation. But relying on lockstep replication can backfire. To begin with, tools are never foolproof. The things that work in one place may not work in another because of differences in local context.

Using disciplined designs and considering other factors like time, language, stories, people, markets, and networks might make the work more complicated but the implementation more scalable and sustainable in the end.

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