Campus & Community

Reprising success easier said than done:

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GSE conference asks: ‘How do you scale up success?’

GSE Professor Chris Dede coordinated the conference with GSE Lecturer James Honan and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium. Robert Nelson of the Milwaukee Public Schools. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

While it may lack the poetry of “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic” or the hot-button relevance of high-stakes testing and school reform, “Scaling Up Success” – the subject of a conference March 20 and 21 at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) – is, its organizers say, a central conundrum of contemporary education.

If it works in Room 302, why won’t it work in the whole school? Test scores are up in Union City; how can we boost them in all of New Jersey?

Convening 80 education researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers, the conference offered solutions, suggestions, and lots and lots of questions about how to replicate successful educational initiatives and innovations on a larger scale. Subtitled “A Usable Knowledge Conference,” the gathering exemplified the GSE’s focus on connecting academic research to practitioners who can use it and policymakers who rely on it to make decisions.

“Problems of scaling up derive from the fact that education involves so many interacting variables, most of which cannot be controlled, even if they can be identified,” said GSE Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann in her opening remarks. She offered the example of teaching a first-grade Hispanic boy to read.

“Whether that young learner will learn to read in English will depend on variables as different as the development of his brain, the language skills of his family, the skill and caring of his teacher, the adequacy of the cognitive demands placed on him by the learning materials, and much else – like whether he is homeless, in need of glasses, or distracted by ADD,” she said.

GSE Professor Chris Dede, who coordinated the conference with GSE lecturer James Honan and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium, is fond of a medical analogy to describe scaling up. If a doctor in Boston finds an effective new diagnosis and treatment for a disease, half the doctors in the country will be using it in a relatively short time, he says.

“If somebody gets an immunization, it really doesn’t matter what language they speak or how rich their parents are, how much they already know, even whether they believe in immunizations or not. It just works,” adds Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies. “But all of those psychosocial things have an enormous impact on whether a learning technique is going to work or not.”

As educators face increased pressure to adhere to standards and “leave no child behind,” scaling up makes optimal use of time and effort to reform education. Without it, says Dede, usable knowledge remains local and is transferred one person, one project, at a time.

“At the scale of American education, that’s a very daunting thought,” he says, likening it to an author who, if she were unable to scale up her story with modern printing, would have to relate it orally, person by person.

Yet it’s a very common scenario.

“Lots of times, we find little islands of innovation in education that are really very exciting, and people say, ‘Couldn’t all teachers do this? Couldn’t all principals do this? Couldn’t all districts do this?’” says Dede. “Unfortunately, with conventional approaches to dissemination, the answer tends to be no.”

Where’s the next Union City?

Provoking more questions than answers, the conference papers showcased examples of scaling up that were somewhat, if not wholly, successful. The conference opened with the case of Union City, N.J., which Dede calls “the poster child for successful scaling up.”

This poor, urban district of 10,000 students in 11 schools in the shadow of New York City has enjoyed remarkable gains in meeting state standards, sending students to college, and inhibiting drop-out rates in the past decade. Much of the credit goes to presenter Fred Carrigg, the district’s curriculum director for 12 years who is now working at the state level to replicate Union City’s success across New Jersey. Under his leadership, Union City focused its early reform efforts on literacy, making changes to learning methodology, time and structure of classes, professional development, and instructional technology.

In the “hot seat” to scale up his Union City success to the entire state, Carrigg has a challenge ahead of him, says Dede.

“What’s interesting is there hasn’t been another Union City. Nobody who’s come to visit Union City has been able to take it back and do the same thing in Colorado or California or Texas for a district of a comparable size,” he says. “So what’s the puzzle there?”

Dede believes that technology – a subtheme of the conference – may be a key piece of the puzzle.

“If you ask people in business or medicine or other sectors in society ‘what’s a big thing that helps you to scale?’ they would inevitably say ‘information technology,’” he says.

His own work presented at the conference showcased ways the Milwaukee Public Schools had harnessed technology for everything from learning and teaching to supporting new teachers to administrative systems. While Milwaukee hasn’t yet seen the success that Union City has, the promise is great: It’s a district 10 times larger than Union City.

Piecing together the puzzle

Scaling up is not a new or untouched subject, but Dede notes that the timing of this conference seemed particularly ripe. Another major contributor to the conference’s success was its deliberate mix of practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers, and its generous structured discussion time after each presentation.

“The discussions would not have been nearly as interesting without that mix,” says Dede, adding that practitioners and policy-makers helped ground the ivory tower academics in reality: How does this pertain to what we’ll face in our schools tomorrow morning?

“They could keep drawing back to the ‘usable’ when people were wandering off into the ‘knowledge,’” he says. “They were the definers of what’s usable.”

Dede and the conference organizers will bring scaling up home, as they scale up this conference to a wider audience via a volume of published research and a Web portal that includes video interviews with many of the presenters.

While conferees left with few hard-and-fast solutions, Dede says it brought the major issues and challenges of scaling up into sharper focus.

“People had pieces of the jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “When we got them all together in a room, we weren’t necessarily able to complete the puzzle, but now have a lot better sense of what the picture was on the puzzle box than when we started.”