03/14/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Schools Can Learn From McDonald's and Starbucks


Courtesy of McDonald's

I was inspired to write this blog post while on a family vacation in northern Wisconsin, on Lake Superior. In this sparsely populated area, there is a Wal-mart, a Curves, at least two McDonald's and outlets of many other national chains, as there are in every corner of our great and diverse nation. Every one of these enterprises started somewhere, figured out how to do what it does very well, and then learned how to maintain quality and effectiveness at scale. Each makes adaptations to local circumstances and needs, but their national companies go to great efforts to see that all maintain a set of standards of quality.

Yet in education, people seem to think that scaling up of proven programs is impossible or even undesirable, no matter how effective or attractive the programs may be. Instead, each of our more than 100,000 public schools in 15,000 districts is expected to invent its own path to excellence. Teachers participate in professional development, to be sure, but this is not the same as replicating effective programs.

One objection to the entire idea of scaling up proven programs is that 'a school is a lot more complex than a Starbucks.' Yes it is. But that very complexity should make schools more, not less, likely to seek reliable, replicable solutions to the parts of their complex task that can be solved this way, so that the professionals in the school can focus their efforts on the parts that cannot be. For example, there is no reason every school has to make up its own math program. Yet almost all schools buy books, rather than programs, give teachers a half-day in-service, and then expect teachers to figure out how to teach the content of the book to their kids, perhaps using audiovisuals or technology, but not a well-specified, research-proven approach.

There are proven, replicable programs for every level of mathematics (and other subjects). By 'proven,' I mean that they have been repeatedly tested in comparison to ordinary practices and found to be more effective. Schools may be more complex than Starbucks, but a math class at a given grade level in one school is a lot like a math class in another. There is no reason that teachers or school leaders could not choose among the several proven programs available to them, or perhaps invest locally in creating and rigorously evaluating something even better. Yet this is rarely what happens.

To those who would argue that America already has far too much 'scaling up' of Wal-marts and McDonald's, I'd agree, but I'd also point out that this is just a matter of taste. In education, we can measure learning gains due to a given program. If a program is known to routinely increase learning more than ordinary methods, educators should embrace it, whether or not it was made locally. When your child is ill, do you prefer a proven treatment from far away, or an untested treatment made up in your local hospital?

Scaling up proven programs has its complexities, but it is not fundamentally different from scaling up any enterprise and maintaining its quality in each location. In fact, scaling up is an American specialty. In education there are several examples of effective scale-up. What is lacking is not the know-how, but the will. Government could readily encourage or incentivize schools to choose from among proven programs, and it could help non-profit providers of proven programs to build capable organizations to scale up their operations. The Obama administration's Investing in Innovation (i3) program is making a start in this direction, devoting substantial resources to help various programs develop their evidence base and scalability. Yet even i3 will not have a lasting impact if government at all levels does not begin to encourage school leaders to learn about and, if they wish, adopt proven programs to solve the predictable problems that all schools must solve.