R EVIEWG ROWINGTHEOFG OING E XPONENTIAL :C HARTER S CHOOL S ECTOR ’ S B ESTReviewed ByDavid GarciaArizona State UniversityApril 2011Summary of ReviewThis Progressive Policy Institute report argues that charter schools should be expanded rapidlyand exponentially. Citing exponential growth organizations, such as Starbucks and Apple, aswell as the rapid growth of molds, viruses and cancers, the report advocates for similar growthmodels for charter schools. However, there is no explanation of how the dramatic growthobserved by these ―exponential growers‖ is applicable or desirable for charter schools. Thereport‘s critical shortcoming is the almost complete lack of acceptable scientific evidence ororiginal research supporting the policy suggestions. The report presents nine ―lessons‖ orsuggestions that are essentially common and abstract aphorisms from the business world.Unfortunately, the report fails to make the case that the suggestions or references are relevant toschool improvement. The research section of the report includes, in fact, only three references –all from the business literature. Such fundamental shortcomings greatly undermine the report‘ssuggestions. Therefore, charter school leaders and policy makers should regard the ninesuggestions as speculation rather than well-grounded policy view-going-exponential1 of 5

Kevin WelnerEditorWilliam MathisManaging DirectorErik GunnManaging EditorNational Education Policy CenterSchool of Education, University of ColoradoBoulder, CO 80309-0249Telephone: 303-735-5290Fax: 303-492-7090Email: g Director: Alex MolnarThis is one of a series of Think Twice think tank reviews made possible in part by funding from the Great LakesCenter for Education Research and Practice. It is also available at du/thinktank/review-going-exponential2 of 5

R EV IEW OF G OING E XPONENTIAL :G ROWING THE C HARTER S CH OOL S EC TOR ’ S B ESTDavid Garcia, Arizona State UniversityI. IntroductionThe report Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best was written by EmilyAyscue Hassel, Bryan C. Hassel and Joe Ableidinger, published by the Progressive PolicyInstitute, and funded by the Walton Family Foundation.1 The report is introduced with theassertion that ―while every child counts, the number of children served by the best charterschools is far too low‖ (p. 5) and that ―millions more children would benefit if they had access tothe nation‘s best CMO‘s [charter management organizations] and charter schools‖ (p. 6). Thereport advocates for exponential charter school expansion but recognizes that mere growth isinsufficient – that it must be the ―best‖ schools in the charter school sector that growexponentially.II. Findings and Conclusions of the ReportThe report‘s primary conclusion can be phrased as ―High exponential growth by organizations isnot only possible; it is a well-documented phenomenon in many sectors‖ (p. 6), and this growthobserved in other sectors and in the natural world is applicable to charter schools. Based onthese conclusions, which are largely unsubstantiated premises, the bulk of the report (22 of the32 pages that constitute the main body) includes nine ‖lessons from research about exponentialgrowth‖ that charter operators and policy makers can follow to achieve exponential growth. Thecollection of policy suggestions includes: (1) commit not just to excellence, but also to reachinglarge numbers of children with excellence, (2) negotiate performance-based funding in chartercontracts, (3) import and induct management talent and extend the reach of the best teachersand leaders, (4) reward charter leaders and staff for reaching more children, (5) use micro-reachand micro-chartering, (6) use branding to enable innovation and build a community of rapidgrowth seekers, (7) invest in systems for scale, (8) acquire other organizations strategically, and(9) pursue operational alliances.The report fails to demonstrate, however, that this collection of policy suggestions is based onany rigorous research. Thus, the collective suggestions are left open to the criticism that they arespeculation rather than well-researched policy view-going-exponential1 of 5

III. The Report’s Rationale for Its Findings and ConclusionsThe report poses an intriguing question to guide the rationale for its findings and conclusions:―But is sustained annual growth of 40 percent possible? Can organizations, with long, complexlists of necessary resources and policy conditions, do it?‖ (p. 8). It then proclaims an answer:In fact they can [grow this rapidly], but only the elite in fact achieve it. In other sectors, eliteorganizations can change whole slices of the human experience by driving new levels ofquality, service, convenience, aesthetics, and innovation into our lives. These are theorganizations we studied to inform our thinking for the charter sector (p. 8).Yet the report offers only minimal research evidence and provides no useful information aboutthe research, which – as suggested by the above quotation – is taken from the businessliterature. The report also examines exponential growth observed in the natural world,specifically ―mold, algae, cancer, crystals and viruses‖ (footnote 31, p. 35). But the report fails tomake the case that the organizations and organisms that were reviewed are applicable toeducation. How is the business transaction between a Starbucks barista and a customerapplicable to the interaction between a teacher and student? How does the growth of virusesapply to the growth of charter schools?In a way, it is not reasonable to apply academic standards to Going Exponential, since the reportdoes not resemble anything in the academic literature. If one must apply those criteria, theThe report offers only minimal research evidence and provides no usefulinformation about the research.document is below generally accepted standards. But a more reasonable evaluative comparisonis to a similar type of publication. In concept, this report is nearly identical to the book Good toGreat by Jim Collins,2 although it is executed with considerably less methodological rigor. Forexample, Going Exponential‘s purpose is to ―understand the period of time just before andduring which some companies grow at far higher, better-sustained exponential rates thanothers, achieving scale and bringing their products and services to large numbers of customers –fast‖ (p. 10). Similarly, Collins and his team,3. . . identified companies that made the leap from good results to great results and sustainedthose results for at least fifteen years. We compared these companies to a carefully selectedgroup of comparison companies that failed to make the leap, or if they did, failed to sustainit. We then compared the good-to-great companies to the comparison companies to discoverthe essential and distinguishing factors at work (p. 3).Going Exponential contains no details on how the ―exponential growth‖ organizations or thenatural exponential growth examples, such as viruses, were selected and analyzed. In contrast,the Good to Great recommendations are supported by 40 pages of detail on the selection ofcompanies (along with a complete list), the criterion for the company comparisons, the type ofdocuments that were analyzed, and the coding strategy they used in their analysis. It is -exponential2 of 5

careful attention to detail that provides the grounding for research-based conclusions andrecommendations such as those in Good to Great.IV. The Report’s Use of Research LiteratureThe research section of Going Exponential is minimal. It includes only three sources (twojournal articles and a book) to make the case that charter schools can and should grow like thediscussed rapid growth businesses.4 The two journal articles are both from the Journal ofBusiness Venturing, and one of these articles is twenty–five years old.The recommendations section cites extensively from additional business literature, withbusiness-school case studies being the most frequent type of source cited. A total of 15 such casestudies are cited throughout the report. The disproportionate number of citations in therecommendations section (rather than in the research section) is unusual for a research report.This approach is susceptible to charges of ―cherry-picking‖ supportive arguments.There is also one notable reference absent in the report. Jim Collins, the author of theaforementioned Good to Great, addressed a nearly identical question as Going Exponential in amonograph entitled ―Good to Great and the Social Sectors.‖ According to Collins, ―We mustreject the idea—well-intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in thesocial sectors is to become ‗more like a business.‘‖5V. Review of the Report’s MethodsThe report‘s methods consist of three different ―examinations‖:1. An examination of the existing research on ―sustained, high-exponential growthorganizations‖ (p. 9) to cull the most common strategies used to ―improve qualityand organizational effectiveness‖ (p. 10). High-exponential growth organizationsare defined as those that have grown at a rate of 40 percent annually for asustained period of time (Figure 2 of the report). The report does not include acomprehensive list of the organizations that meet the aforementioned definition,but the two most-often cited businesses in the body of the report are Starbucks (9times) and Apple (5 times). The report indicates that a selection process was usedto determine when an organizational tactic rose to the appropriate level to beincluded in the report, but little explanation is provided. The report simply states,―we focused only on elements that have been noted by researchers as likelydistinguishers of sustained, high exponential growth organizations‖ (p. 10).2. An examination of ―stand-alone cases of organizations‖ that meet the definitionof sustained, high exponential growth. Once again, the report suggests that aselection process was used to identify the stand-alone cases, but the reader is notgiven the details of this selection. The report notes, ―We avoided organizationsthat were merely large (for example, because of moderate growth sustained overa century) or merely excellent in their products or services‖ (p. 10).3. An examination of growth in the natural ing-exponential3 of 5

We also conducted research about when and how exponential growth occursin the natural world, specifically examining mold, algae, cancer, crystals andviruses. We used these findings in addition to cross-sector lessons to fuel ourthinking about fresh directions for the charter sector. The similaritiesbetween the natural world and organizational worlds are rather striking anduseful for understanding the critical elements of exponential growth. (fn. 31,p. 35.)The report provides no indication of how such findings were used to influence the report orexactly how it is useful to expanding charter schools.Without a credible research base, the report fails to make the case that the nine policy suggestions, andnot myriad other (well-researched) policy alternatives, are a proper and productive course to improvestudent achievement. Rather, the lack of detail leaves the report defenseless against the charge that thesuggestions and references were “cherry-picked” in advance to support a predetermined position.VI. Review of the Validity of the Findings and ConclusionsA discerning reader should consider the recommendations of any report only after coming to anindependent determination that the underlying research is rigorous and applicable. GoingExponential does not meet this standard. The report provides virtually no evidence to supportthe conclusions. Given this lack of evidence, the report does not sustain the validity of itsfindings or conclusions.VII. Usefulness of the Report for Guidance of Policy and PracticeIt is doubtful that studies comparable to Going Exponential would be found in the academicliterature, since such reports would not generally meet minimal scientific standards. The reportincludes insufficient explanations of research used to derive the policy suggestions. It simplydoes not provide adequate evidence to support the suggestions that are proposed for charterschool operators and policy makers.Educators and policy makers need thoughtful policy alternatives to make data-driven decisionsin an increasingly complex environment. Those who wish to advance public policy must makethe intellectual bridge between their research and education policy. Without a sound researchbase, the policy suggestions in Going Exponential become speculation rather than wellresearched policy view-going-exponential4 of 5

Notes and ReferencesHassel, E. A., Hassel, B. C., & Ableidinger, J. (2011). Going exponential: Growing the charter schoolsector's best. Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute. Retrieved March 2, 2011, ds/2011/02/2.2011 Hassel GoingExponential WEB1.pdf.1Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap . and other don't. New York:HarperCollins Publishers Inc.2Interestingly, the word ―great‖ appears 47 times in the 40-page document.Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap . and other don't. New York:HarperCollins Publishers Inc.34 See:Barringer, B. R., Jones, F. F., & Neubaum, D. O. (2005). A quantitative content analysis of thecharacteristics of rapid-growth firms and their founders. Journal of Business Venturing, 20(5), 663-687.Hambrick, D.C. & Crozier, L. M. (1985). Stumblers and stars in the management of rapid growth. Journalof Business Venturing, 1(1), 31-45.Thompson, D. G. (2006). Blueprint to a billion: 7 essentials to achieve exponential growth. Hoboken, NJ:John Wiley & Sons, Inc.5 Collins, J. (2005). Good to great and the social sectors: Why business thinking is not the answer: Amonograph to accompany Good to Great. Boulder, CO: Jim going-exponential5 of 5

DOCUMENT REVIEWED:Going Exponential: Growing the CharterSchool Sector’s BestAUTHORS:Emily Ayscue Hassel, Bryan C. Hasseland Joe AbleidingerPUBLISHER/THINK TANK:Progressive Policy InstituteDOCUMENT RELEASE DATE:February 2011REVIEW DATE:April 21, 2011REVIEWERS:David Garcia, Arizona State UniversityE-MAIL ADDRESS:[email protected] NUMBER:(480) 727-7413SUGGESTED CITATION:Garcia, D. (2011). Review of “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.”Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved [date] g-exponential.

Summary of Review This Progressive Policy Institute report argues that charter schools should be expanded rapidly and exponentially. Citing exponential growth organizations, such as Starbucks and Apple, as well as the rapid growth of molds, viruses and cancers, the report