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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Can Model Programs Ever Become the Norm?

We always have model programs that gain attention in the press as being a better solution to deliver many types of services.  Model charter schools that show significant increases in student achievement.  Mentoring programs that achieve remarkable results with children from disadvantaged families.  The media highlights these programs as models to be replicated to achieve improved outcomes in more communities.  But along the way the efforts to replicate these model programs fall short of achieving the same results in other communities.  What was missing?  What ingredient was difficult to replicate when the model program is “taken to scale?”  Do model programs only work with a committed visionary leader? Or is it some other missing ingredient?

I have been re-reading a book that I read years ago when I was working to replicate a model program in Illinois called Hope for the Children.  Hope for the Children rehabbed some surplus military housing and developed a small community for families adopting children from foster care.  Ronald McDonald Charities gave a large grant to Hope to replicate the program in six locations throughout the United States.  In this effort I became familiar with a book written by Lisbeth Schorr, the wife of news reporter Daniel Schorr,  called “Within Our Reach.” The book was the result of Lisbeth’s research into what made model programs successful and what was necessary to replicate the model.  I found out that Lisbeth lived in DC and emailed her to see if she would meet with me to discuss this topic.  Fortunately she was very approachable and I spent an afternoon visiting her in her home in DC.  Last week I had a chance to reconnect with her and continue some of the discussions I began years ago.

What Lisbeth discovered was that successful model programs have the qualities of being flexible, comprehensive, intensive and sustained in their intervention.  Flexibility allowed the programs to treat persons receiving the services to be treated as individuals and the interventions could be customized to meet the needs of that particular individual or family.  No one size fits all approach.  The model program was comprehensive in that is looked at the need in its totality so that interventions might include a wide range of resources. The services provided were intensive in that interventions were frequent and regular.  Monthly or even weekly support was often too infrequent to achieve the desired results.  Finally the model program services had a long-term outlook that recognized that change can come slowly and only sustained effort will result lasting change. 

So what happens with the model programs were replicated or “taken to scale.”  Expecting that you can get the same results with less intense, flexible, comprehensive or sustained efforts compromised the above qualities of the model programs.  The attempt to serve more people with only a modest increase in funding and resources doomed many replications.  Going to scale often meant serving 10 times as many people with only twice the amount of funding.  The thing that made the model programs successful was the amount of resources directed to a relatively small group of recipients.  To quote from her book called “Common Purpose,”
Time was when scaling up from success was less an issue because it was generally assumed that successful programs contained the seeds of their own replication. The notion that promising models would automatically spread provided the rationale for funding of demon­stration projects over the years.
But these beliefs have not been supported by experience. For many years, foundations, and even public agencies, funded pilot programs and discovered many that seemed successful, only to find them com­ing to a quick end when the demonstration funds ran out. The ones that worked disappeared or were diluted into ineffectiveness at much the same rate as those that didn't work.
We saw the beginnings of what I have come to think of as a Ceiling on Scale—made up of a series of elaborate rationalizations that keep us from acting on the implications of what we learn from pilots and demonstrations. Few challenged the idea of continuing demonstrations without ever taking them to scale and without find­ing out anything new. We deluded ourselves into thinking we didn't know enough, when what actually has kept us from going to scale was an unwillingness to invest the necessary resources or a reluc­tance to disturb the status quo.”

The take away from all of this is that achieving real change takes significant resources and that the “magic bullet” that everyone is looking for to address a community need is going to fail with half hearted efforts that are under funded and can’t be sustained in the long term.  There are no shortcuts to effectiveness. Lisbeth sums up her finding as this,
“…..the crux of the replication problem, and the reason that significant public purposes will not be achieved simply through the dissemination of information about discrete innovations and effec­tive practices. Breaking the Ceiling on Scale is so hard because all the forces aligned against change drag innovations back to the status quo. If effective interventions are not to be limited by the short-term funding they can attract from peripheral sources, if they are not to stay stuck at the margins of public policy and at the margins of people's lives, replicators and their supporters must recognize and resolve the contradictions that effective interventions pose to pre­vailing institutions and systems.
When that happens, much else will fall into place. When the lead­ers of effective interventions no longer have to spend most of their energy and ingenuity in battling their hostile surroundings, the prob­lem of having to rely on the Mother Teresas and Local Heroes will begin to recede. We will begin to see well-trained, competent, perse­vering but otherwise ordinary people reach the goals that only mira­cle workers used to achieve.”

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