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Copy and Paste: The Magical Thinking of Replication and Scalability

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Over the past month I’ve had two great opportunities to meet and have conversations with Philadelphia’s students and teachers. The first event was Science Leadership Academy’s EduCon 2.3. The second event was Teacher Action Group’s Justice In the Classroom Event. Both settings allowed for meaningful dialogue about what those in schools want education to be like. I went into both events trying to steal as many good ideas as I could. Reflection has led me to think about what my expectations of learning about other’s success are.

EduCon gathers educators from across the country and hosts a number of international participants as well. When I arrived at the conference I found it quite odd to learn that I was only one of 50 or 60 SDP educators there. In our own hometown, we couldn’t muster even a third of the attendees. Regardless of Philly’s participation, I knew what my goals of the conference were. I was going to spend fourteen and half hours getting every ounce I could squeeze out of the SLA faculty. And why not, when else in the District can you sit for any amount time in another school and learn from those who by all accounts succeeding wildly?*(help finding awards, press for SLA)

I spent four of the six sessions I attended with SLA staff. We talked about a wide range of topics from planning common planning time to implementing standards based grading in language classes. The last session I attended focused on SLA’s advisory program. Prior to attending EduCon I had this session on my must go list. I had previously heard Principal Chris Lehmann discuss the impact advisory had on the school. I was truly amazed when I heard the student’s side of just how important their advisory period was. I expected the eloquent descriptions of how advisory worked and why it was important. I was floored to observe not only the deep emotional connections they had with each other but also with their school. These were a group of students who felt more comfortable with each other and with explaining the culture they were trying to foster than any I have met before. Without any doubt, the adults at SLA have created a space that the students can, and do, owe. I left EduCon that Sunday with many ideas I wanted to implement where I worked, and seen implemented district-wide.

This past Saturday Teacher Action Group Philadelphia (TAG) hosted its second annual Justice in the Classroom Event. The purpose of the event is join practictioneers of restorative practices with those seeking to implement non-punitive discipline systems in their classrooms and schools. The day was broken-up into a description of what Restorative Practices are, a panel discussion, theoretical scenario work, and finally a large group conversation about take-aways. Educators and students alike from our communities’ schools talked about what restorative practices might look like, how they could be applied, and road-blocks to implementation. The most interesting part of the discussion for me was the notion of how to best spread the idea. Some thought it best to start in their own classroom and trust that good ideas spread. Others explained the difficulty of being the only teacher using such practices. One panelist explained that her high school had widely used the program under one principal, but found it next to impossible to continue without the support from the succession of principals they have recently had. It was this idea that joined my thoughts from EduCon to this event.

Current educational debate is based largely two premises; public education is failing, we need to indentify and scale-up what works. One need to look no further than last year’s I3 competition to see where education’s purse strings are being opened. I understand the idea of becoming knowledgeable about successful programs in educational contexts. I think there is space to debate what successful means, which I’ll leave for another day. What I don’t understand is the idea that educators could write a new canon of successful practices and our woes, real or imagined, would be gone.

I would love to spend some more time observing SLA’s advisory. I think that the model they are using is the reason why the school is as successful as it is. There is a big problem with taking that idea on the road however. Context matters. And those who want to scale-up and replicate programs the most can be guilty of missing the context in which the programs take place.

Let’s take advisory as an example. Obstructionists to the idea could cite some important differences between SLA and the average comprehensive high school. Site-selected teachers, a special admission process for students, small size, and the newness of the whole school could all be reasons someone would use to reject even the possibility of something that works at SLA working in a comprehensive high school. Those who would actually want to have a successful advisory in their own school would have to be very careful about the verb they use. The distance between replicate and apply is probably the same as the space between failure and success. A principal could tell the faculty at a school tomorrow exactly how an advisory period is structured and the program could fail miserably. Programs that create deep systemic change are rarely as easy as opening the manual and reading the script.

I believe for additive or better yet transformational changes to happen in schools, reform must be tailored by the practitioners on the ground. There must be an opportunity for ownership of the strategy or intervention. There must be some wiggle room. Most importantly, there must be time to let everyone involved get the hang of what is new. The 30,000 foot view the School District of Philadelphia sometimes takes in curricular and turnaround decision making dooms programs to failure before they even start. To truly incubate successful reforms in Philadelphia, we need to shift styles from copy and paste to copy and edit.

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