What's The Recipe?

People frequently visit our charter school. They ask: what is the recipe? It's a tough question. First, our school has many flaws. So while I think the kids are getting a dramatically better school experience than they'd otherwise get, which makes me feel good, the idea of "the recipe" is uncomfortable, because it implies "finished product."

Second, while we do have ready responses of "what works" -- this, that, the other thing -- usually it's too short a list. Oversimplified.

But people don't like long lists. Turnoff. Plus I'm a droner. I keep forgetting this. I get excited about details and give answers that are waaaaaay too long. Trying to learn. To keep. It. Short. Er.

I've spoken to other charter school leaders, and they're mixed on this question of "what's the recipe." Some think they can describe theirs easily and elegantly. Others, like Brett Peiser, don't.

This is not a picture of Brett Peiser. I typed "Brett Peiser" into Google, clicked on "Images," and found this. I couldn't find one of Brett. This is the first result.

Brett was a couple years ahead of me at the Kennedy School of Government. He has a good jump shot from about 17 feet, if I recall correctly. Or at least he did 10 years ago. And he is one of the founders of Uncommon Schools, a network of excellent charter schools in New York City.

When asked "What is the recipe?", Brett says "There are 100 one-percent solutions."

Last May he used that line with the New York Times. But he's been saying it forever. Here it is from 2002.

There's a story from New York City. Possibly apocryphal. Joel Klein, the Chancellor of New York City Schools, asks Brett "What's the recipe?" Brett gives his answer. Klein says "I need a different answer. I got a million kids. We can't scale 100 one-percent solutions." Brett says "It is what it is."

So does knowledge transfer when you share what seem to be key ideas? Or do you need to try to copy everything at first, because you're not that likely to really know what are really the key ideas?

This is an important K-12 question for 2 reasons:

1. Our charter school, like others, is proposing to grow. So what exactly should a charter school copy when it replicates? Is it sufficient to copy some major ideals, as KIPP does? Or should a charter copy the model exactly, get it rolling, and then tinker?

2. The other reason this question is important is because the climate on charter schools is changing. Improving. Some of it is air cover from Obama. Leaders from traditional schools are more willing to visit charter schools and consider what we do. The notion is that they might pick stuff a la carte to improve their own schools. Will that work?

Yesterday we got a visit from Nathaniel Foote. He studies high-performing organizations. He pointed me to a paper written by some colleagues.

Companies “don’t know why what they do really works,” Szulanski says, “and they realize that when try to transfer their practices.”

Hmm. That sounds interesting. Here's more.

Getting it Right the Second Time Harvard Business Review, January 2002 Gabriel Szulanski and Sidney Winter

Once a business performs a complex activity well, the parent organization often wants to replicate that success. But doing that is surprisingly difficult, and businesses nearly always fail when they try to reproduce a best practice. The reason?

People approaching best-practice replication are overly optimistic and overconfident.

Getting it right the second time (and all the times after that) involves adjusting for overconfidence in your own abilities and imposing strict discipline on the process and the organization. The authors studied numerous business settings to find out how organizational routines were successfully reproduced, and they identified five steps for successful replication.

First, make sure you've got something that can be copied and that's worth copying. Second, work from a single template. It provides proof of success, performance measurements, a tactical approach, and a reference for when problems arise. Third, copy the example exactly, and fourth, make changes only after you achieve acceptable results.

Fifth, don't throw away the template. If your copy doesn't work, you can use the template to identify and solve problems. Best-practice replication, while less glamorous than pure innovation, contributes enormously to the bottom line of most companies. The article's examples--Banc One, Rank Xerox, Intel, Starbucks, and Re/Max Israel--prove that exact copying is a nontrivial, challenging accomplishment.

I wonder if that applies to our sector.

The author elaborates in an interview:

“So if don’t have a template, by which we mean a working example, then it’s a lot more difficult to get the results you want,” Szulanski says. And the results you could get can be startling. “In many cases the difference in performance between units of the same organization is incredible. We’re talking about an average of 200 per cent difference between a good case of best practice and not-so-good practice. In some cases, I’ve seen differences of up to ten times!”