The Dis-Economies of Scale in Education

One of the banes of education reform is its obsession with producing uniform reforms at scale.  Donors and policymakers tend to prefer standards and testing reforms that affect all students at once.  And if they are willing to entertain the messiness of school choice, donors and policymakers tend to prefer large chains, like KIPP, over mom and pop charters or the diverse assortment of small private schools.  They want to achieve what they imagine are the economies of scale in education by having the same reform affect large numbers of students at the same time and in roughly the same way.

Unfortunately, there do not appear to be many economies of scale in education.  In fact, the nature of education, like other aspects of human development, appear to be more effectively conducted at small scale.  Education, like child-rearing, relies for success on personal interactions among people with authentic relationships.

We’ve tried a variety of arrangements throughout history for raising children.  People have experimented with all sorts of collective child-rearing approaches but have gravitated back in almost all cultures across long-periods of time to raising children within small family groups.  Despite the allure of economies of scale, we’ve almost universally rejected communal child-rearing.  Even though we could house more children and would require fewer adults in giant, orphanage-like settings, we rightly recognize that proper human development involves the close interaction of caring adults with children.  It’s just not something that is produced well at scale.

We should no more prefer scale in education than desire collective child-rearing.  Children are sufficiently diverse in their interests and needs that uniformly imposed solutions tend not to serve them very well.  Instead, it takes caring adults with an understanding of each child to customize (at least partially) how each child should be educated.  In addition, education requires motivating children to exert effort to learn.  That motivation is much more easily produced by an adult with whom children have an authentic relationship.

So the next time you hear reformers ask if a reform is scalable, remind them that orphanages are scalable — but that doesn’t mean we want them.

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3 Responses to The Dis-Economies of Scale in Education

  1. Ayn says:

    Well stated. Authentic, caring relationships require serious time and effort and are absolutely essential throughout the process of education. There are no short-cuts.

    An organization can grow so large that it becomes far too costly to manage due to its complexity, the bureaucracy and myriad operating inefficiencies, in addition to fudging the proper mission of education, that of teaching individual children. All of these factors I consider to be “dis-economies of scale”.

  2. mitchel l kotula jr says:

    I have been reading your blog for over a year now and it has been incrementally increasing my knowledge of the subject. This post in particular hit home. We avoided the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools district and opted for a private Christian school of JK-12 enrollment of just over 1000. Everything about the school was our choice, among the 10 viable private options we had available…and it was the right one by a mile with all others a distant second. What our school does right is not scalable; if we doubled enrollment everything I love would dissapear: all teachers know me by name, workable carpool lanes, knowing most other parents, catching kid problems before they escalate, sense of accountability since I am not anonymous…it all is custom crafted to work at this size. And it took over 50 years of intense parental involvement to bring our school to this level of stability.

  3. pdexiii says:

    Our charter school is as mom-and-pop as it gets.
    – We have waiting lists for all 3 grades.
    – Test scores? Meh.
    – HS graduation rate? Blows the state average away.
    – Customer satisfaction? See bullet 1.

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