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.