Scaling Up: Penicillin and Education


In 1928, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming invented penicillin. As the story goes, he invented penicillin by accident, when he left a petri dish containing bacteria on his desk overnight and the next morning found that it was infected with rod-shaped organisms that had killed the bacteria. Fleming isolated the rods and recognized that if they could kill bacteria, they might be useful in curing many diseases.

Early on it was clear that penicillin had extraordinary possibilities. In World War I, more soldiers and civilians had been killed by bacterial diseases than were killed by bullets. What if these diseases could be cured? Early tests showed very promising effects.

Yet there was a big problem. No one knew how to produce penicillin in quantity. Very small experiments established that penicillin had potential for curing bacterial infections and was not toxic. However, the total world supply at the onset of World War II was about enough for a single adult. The impending need for penicillin was obvious, but it still was not ready for prime time.

American and British scientists finally began to work together to find a way to scale up production of penicillin. Finally, the Merck Company developed a mass production method, and was making billions of units by D-Day.

The key dynamic of the penicillin story has much in common with an essential problem of education reform. The Merck work did not change the structure of penicillin itself, but Merck scientists did a lot of science and experimentation to find strains that were stable and replicable. In education reform, it is equally the case that the development and initial evaluation of a given program may be a very different process from that intended to carry out large-scale evaluations and scaling up of proven programs.

In some cases, different organizations may be necessary to do large scale evaluation and implementation, as was the case with Merck and Fleming, and in other cases the same organization may carry though the development, initial evaluation, large-scale evaluation, and dissemination. Whoever is responsible for the various steps, their requirements are similar.

At small scale, innovators are likely to work in schools nearby, where they can frequently visit schools, see what is going on, hear teachers' perspectives, and change strategies in course in response to what is going on. At small scale, programs might vary a great deal from class to class or school to school. Homemade measures, opinions, observations, and other informal indicators may be all developers need or want. From a penicillin perspective, this is still the Fleming level.

When a program moves to the next level, it may be working in many schools or distant locations, and the approach must change substantially. This is the Merck stage of development in penicillin terms. Developers must have a very clear idea of what the program is, and then provide student materials, software, professional development, and coaching directed toward helping teachers to enact the program effectively. Rather than being able to adapt a great deal to the desires or ideas of every school or teacher, principals and teachers can be asked to vote on participation, with an understanding that if they decide to participate, they commit to follow the program more or less as designed, with reasonable variations in light of unique characteristics of the school (e.g., urban/rural, presence of English learners, or substantial poverty). Professional development and coaching need to be standardized, with room for appropriate adaptations. Organizations that provide large-scale services need to learn how to manage functions such as finance, human resources, and IT.

As programs grow, they should seek funding for large-scale, randomized evaluations, ideally by third party evaluators.

In order to get to the Merck level in education reform, we must be ready to build robust, flexible, self-sustaining organizations, capable of ensuring positive impacts of educational programs on a broad scale. Funding from government and private foundations are needed along the way, but the organizations ultimately must be able to operate mostly or entirely on revenues from schools, especially Title I or other funds likely to be available in many or most schools.

Over the years, penicillin has saved millions of lives, due to the pioneering work of Fleming and the pragmatic work of Merck. In the same way, we can greatly enhance the learning of millions of children, combining innovative design and planful, practical scale-up.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation