Why One Critic of “Going Exponential” is Misguided

By / 4.25.2011

Writers usually do not respond to critiques from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) because they are so one-sided and predictable, especially if a report suggests any potential benefits to charter schools. But since their review of our report for the Progressive Policy Institute on growing the best charter schools, seriously mischaracterizes the research base of our findings – and our claims about that base – we decided we needed to reply briefly.

As we explain clearly in the report, our findings are based on a review of existing literature about rapidly growing organizations in the business and nonprofit sectors. We did not conduct, or claim to have conducted, original research in the vein of the multi-year Jim Collins research effort that produced Good to Great. The Collins book did not focus on the extreme rapid growth period of interest to us in this paper, so it was not the proper base for this particular paper. Luckily, the phenomenon of rapid growth has already been studied by others, and therefore we drew on that literature in our report.

Though the NEPC review suggests that our “research section” contains “only three references,” in fact the report cites dozens of books, journal articles, and case studies in support of our conclusions. The review also states that we do not discuss the nature of the studies, but readers will find just such discussion in the endnotes included in the report, available here. As we explain in an endnote, for example, one the primary studies we used to form our conclusions, David Thomson’s Blueprint to a Billion, compared 387 sustained, rapid growth firms that achieved a billion dollars in revenue to over 5,000 peer companies that fell short of this mark.

Notably, the NEPC review does not challenge any of the lessons that we drew from this literature review, or suggest any alternate findings that would explain why some organizations manage to grow rapidly while others do not. Nor does it challenge our main point, which is that millions of children could benefit if even a subset of the best charter schools grew at high rates like the best growth organizations in other sectors. Instead, the review questions the applicability of lessons from other kinds of organizations to charter schools, asking what relevance the interaction between a barista and a customer has to the interaction between a teacher and a student.

But here’s what’s interesting. You could just as easily ask what relevance do barista-customer interactions have to the activities of Habitat for Humanity, networking-hardware giant Cisco, or a software firm like Microsoft. And yet these disparate organizations used similar tactics to grow rapidly, most of which have little to do with the specific industries in which they work. The real question is why educational organizations couldn’t use similar tactics in their effort to reach more students with high-quality teaching and learning. Too many children simply are not reached by teaching excellence today, and the teachers and other staff in the best charter schools have figured out how to deliver that excellence.

Of course, rapid growers in any sector would be thrilled not to have to use analogies. Ideally, numerous excellent charter organizations will work over the next few years to grow rapidly. They will use a variety of approaches, some of which will be more successful than others. Primary researchers will then be able to learn a great deal from that experience, while many more children benefit meanwhile. For anyone who would like to see more kids served by excellent schools, that’s the kind of action and follow-up research we need.