Education, General

Rock, Water and Pebble: Three Strategies for Scaling Education Innovations

The complexity of schools – and therefore the complexity of improving them – has big implications for how we introduce and implement new innovations into school systems. In this essay, New Profit Managing Partner Alex Cortez shares his learnings from supporting education leaders working to scale education innovations. 

Building and sustaining an excellent school is like asking an orchestra to perform the 1812 Overture while also playing full-contact rugby – for at least 180 days of the year, every year – and with musicians/players regularly being replaced. And that’s all before schools had to manage the complexity of operating during a pandemic. 

To be excellent, a school must excel in a dizzying array of design elements – academic rigor, culture, talent development, differentiated instruction, operations, finance, human resources, etc. – and each element must be aligned and integrated with each other to work well. It’s incredibly intricate and fairly daunting to get it right for any student. It’s also even more difficult – yet absolutely essential – to get it right for every student, requiring schools and those of us supporting them to focus continuously on equity so that each design element in a school works for all and not just for some. 

The complexity of schools – and therefore the complexity of improving them – has big implications for how we introduce and implement new innovations into school systems. 

In this essay, New Profit Managing Partner Alex Cortez shares his learnings from supporting education leaders working to scale education innovations. 

If we think of education systems as geological formations, there are three strategies for scaling innovations: the Rock Strategy, the Water Strategy, and the Pebble Strategy.

  • The Rock Strategy allows education leaders to own most or all of a school’s design elements, and under the pressure of accountability (most rocks in nature form under pressure), build strong, comprehensive whole school models. But the crowded geological formations of education systems don’t always have space to easily introduce new rocks.
  • The Water Strategy allows education leaders to prioritize one or a few design elements of a school in which they have strong expertise and create targeted yet rigorous innovations, such as a new curriculum or tutoring. These innovations can then flow into education systems wherever they are invited and are able to achieve great breadth of impact, but are sometimes limited in depth of impact because of their narrower focus.
  • The Pebble Strategy allows education leaders to leverage the structural integrity and control of a rock, but at a small enough size – serving 20-30 students – to more easily fit into the geological formation of existing education systems – essentially micro-schools or schools-within-schools. 

However, education leaders should not be constrained to just one strategy, and increasingly more are using a combination of these strategies to advance innovation.

To view the full essay please use the e-reader below or click here to download. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, and please feel free to share this article with anyone interested in strategies to scale education innovations.