Looking at the Numbers: What Scales in K-12, Anyway?

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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
--Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (1987)

Last week, I heard the following exchange between an education entrepreneur and a philanthropist for 9,358th time:

Education entrepreneur: “I want to start a [insert new idea].”

Philanthropist: “Great. How is it going to scale?”

I work for an education philanthropy with the word “growth” in its name. I love the scale. And yet even I finally cracked. What do we mean when we say “scale” in education?!

I haphazardly started listing out K12 organizations, programs, policies and ideas, along with estimates of the number of students reached per year. Student reach statistics were drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics, organizational websites, articles and other general web research, and spanned 2012 to 2014. (Disclaimer: this is an informal thought exercise, not a PhD dissertation). Here’s what I came up with:

Organization / program / policy / idea US students reached per year
NCLB state standards / testing 50M
Textbooks 45M (estimate)
Homework 43M (guess)
National School Lunch Program 31M
States with collective bargaining for teachers 26M (estimate)
Scholastic Reading Club 26M
Larger public school districts (10k+ students) 26M
Pearson Powerschool SIS 13M
Accelerated Reader 12M ( estimate)
Khan Academy 10M unique global users, 5M US (guess)
Private schools 5.3M
Boy and Girl Scouts 5M
Youth soccer 4M
College entrance exams (SAT / ACT) 3M (guess due to overlap)
Charter public schools 2.6M
Project Lead The Way STEM program 2M (guess)
Homeschooling 1.7M
Core Knowledge 1M
Teach For America 750,000
KIPP 58,000
New Orleans Charter School District 40,000
Success Academy Charter Schools 6,700
Reading to my twin sons 2

A few quick observations

Ideas that reach mega-scale (>25 M students per year) largely use the law, public policy or market power to get uptake. Other than homework, all the mega-scale education ideas are mandated by public policy because they’ve been written into law (e.g., state standards, union rights, etc.) or delivered by industries and/or organizations with significant market power (e.g., textbook publisher oligopoly, local school district monopoly, etc.).

Of the ideas that reach more than 1M students, only Khan Academy was launched in the last 10 years. The sample size is small, but this chart makes Khan Academy’s numbers (along with Class Dojo and Edmodo’s rapid growth, which are not in the table) even more impressive. Software may not be eating education yet, but it’s definitely nipping at its ankles.

Ideas that help families supplement or go around schools tend to level off at 5M students. Interesting that private schools, Boy and Girl Scouts, and Youth Soccer all have roughly the same reach of 4-5M students. This is also why for-profit edtech investors rarely focus on solutions that solely target more affluent families--the opportunity is too small.

Very few scalable education ideas actually help students learn. Besides academic standards, homework and textbooks are the only learning-focused items on the list that reach over half of US students. Let me just say, these are not the two items I would have picked to fuel world-class education outcomes.

Fractured opinions among schools about “what works” combined with the difficulties inherent in developing and spreading effective teaching practice makes it hard for more sophisticated academic approaches to reach scale. The Core Knowledge curriculum, which recently earned positive reading results in New York City, reaches just over 1M students (and growing). It’s possible that phonics, balanced literacy, data-driven instruction and other common instructional practices have reached significant scale (I couldn’t find the data). But the point is, scaling effective teaching and learning practices is hard.

Five reflections on scalability

1. It’s easy to see why education is so political. Mega-scale education ideas use centralized regulatory structures to spread, which means lots of lobbying and political spend, large sales forces, and other stiff barriers to entry. This may be counterintuitive, but I wonder if good ideas would spread more easily if schools were more decentralized and student achievement was more transparent.

2. Academic standards sit prominently at the top of the scale table. This is THE play if you believe in scalable ideas that impact academic achievement for 50M students. I’m an unapologetic supporter of rigorous academic standards, but even I found it eye-opening to see standards stick out so prominently on this list.

3. Technology allows us to reach a lot of students very quickly relative to other education ideas which can often take decades. Khan Academy, Class Dojo and Edmodo went viral by going straight to teachers and students. This strategy may get harder as stricter privacy requirements require more institutional approvals for edtech to reach classrooms.

4. Bigger is not necessarily better. Success Academies is doing earth-shattering work with its 6,700 students (90% minority / 82% FRL) in NYC--69% of its students scored advanced in math on the latest NY state exams--double the rate of NYC students who simply passed. And the school network is scaling rapidly: Success doubled the number of students it serves over the last two years. The average American school district has approximately 3,000 students, so proving that a 6,700 student urban school district can be high-performing is an important achievement. Similarly, KIPP now serves 58,000 students across the country, an important proof point for larger school systems. It can take decades to grow great organizations, and many of those changing education for the better are playing the long game.

5. Brett Peiser, CEO of Uncommon Schools, is fond of saying that great schools are made up of one hundred 1% solutions. Maybe scale in education is less about spreading isolated practices and more about supporting the growth of high-performing organizations who do an exceptional job assembling their own set of 1% solutions.

Scale is not good or bad, per se. But we could be more precise about what we mean, what we value and the impact we desire when we ask the inevitable question of what scales in K-12 schools.

Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez is an EdSurge Columnist. He works for the Charter School Growth Fund. Charter School Growth Fund is a philanthropic supporter of Success Academies, numerous KIPP regions and Uncommon Schools.

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