Finding it hard to go ‘All In’?

Read “The Problems and Promise of Bringing Educational Interventions to Scale by Brad Phillips in Medium.

Going all-in sounds exciting in poker but not for most educational institutions. Few are willing to bet big on going to scale with interventions, even if these interventions are research-based and have shown promise in improving student outcomes.

So why is it so difficult to go all-in in education?

Educators are, by their very nature, conservative and do not like change. There is an old anecdote in education. It starts off by asking …of all the world’s major systems, such as government, technology, religion, medicine and education, which systems have experienced the least amount of change over time? The reality is education and religion have changed the least. While one can argue online education has changed the system, it’s really only the technology to deliver education that has changed — like adding a train down the middle of the same highway.

Another barrier to change is that within any educational organization, a variety of silos exist. And it is actually more complicated than silos, more like Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls where program directors fiercely protect their turf and their budgets. Any talk of holistic large-scale change where their turf and budgets may be affected leads to great consternation and, often, outright rejection and sabotage. Thirty years ago, before I began my career in education, I worked in healthcare. When I received an offer to work in education a good friend of mine and probably the smartest person I have ever met, sent me an email that said “Brad, don’t do it. Never have battles been fought so hard for so little.”

Leadership can also be timid, and for good reason. Leading an educational organization is a difficult job and comes with many perils. Many CEO’s recognize this. One way to stay in place is by not rocking the boat too much. After all, leaders are operating within the context of the above-mentioned resistance to change. When a leader proposes large-scale change, the forces against that change rally and too often attacks against change become personal rather than about the potential for increased student success. These personal attacks take a great toll on leadership. Where there are boards of trustees who support the educational organization, board members can be contacted by disgruntled educators to sway them against perceived sweeping changes.

College presidents, chancellors, superintendents of schools, rarely have very long tenures at any one educational institution. In fact, in some states the average is just three years. This short tenure may be further reduced by trying to do too much too quickly, even if the changes are drastically needed to improve student success.

A forth barrier is that many of the proposed educational interventions can be quite costly to plan, implement, and maintain, forcing educational organizations to rely on grant funding for new interventions. Unfortunately, all too often the leaders of these interventions have not worked out sustainability plans to continue the intervention once the grant funding has ended.

In addition, if a change is coming from a vendor, promises may be made that do not hold up and vendors offer no guarantee that when their product or service is successfully implemented, it will have the desired effects.

However, these reasons for not going to scale are the same reasons for doing so. Often it takes an organization-wide initiative to move the needle on student success in a big way, which means challenging the status quo. Leaders want to leave their mark on an organization for posterity. And the high cost of piloting an intervention — in dollars, human resources, and student results — warrants the big investment of going to scale and not leaving that to chance.

Alternatively, there are examples of educational institutions that have made large-scale changes and implemented interventions at-scale without the aid of grants or the heavy reliance on vendors. Odessa College in Texas, is one of those institutions that implemented large-scale changes relying primarily on their general fund budget. The changes began with working to increase student retention and course success (leading indicators). Their first, large-scale intervention involved increasing the connection between faculty and students with a set of practices that increased engagement. These practices help students feel like they belong in college and could be successful. Faculty also benefited, reporting some of the highest levels of satisfaction I have seen. The positive impact of this first, large-scale intervention, set the stage for subsequent organization-wide program and policy changes. This work helped Odessa College to become a Top-10 Aspen winner and Rising Star awardee, a Texas Star awardee, and an Achieving the Dream Leah Myer Austin awardee.

Going to scale is possible but it requires a bold approach, an understanding of the barriers and challenges to moving forward, and a relentless focus on student success.

This is the second in a series of blogs about going to scale with educational innovations. The first blog can be found at:

The next blog will address the use of leading and lagging indicators and their impact of focus in support of going to scale.

I would very much like your feedback. Send me an email at:

Brad C Phillips, Ph.D., is the co-author of the new book: Creating a Data-Informed Culture in Community Colleges: A New Model for Educators, by Harvard Education Press (2017):