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The 'Cancer is Under-Rated' Award - 2011 Grand Prize Winner

Progressive Policy Institute for NEPC Review: Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector's Best (February 2011)

The Progressive Policy Institute deserves our top award for combining a weak analysis, agenda-driven recommendations, and the most bizarre analogy we have seen in a long time. This report spoke to us in ways matched by no other publication.

The report’s authors seemed to think it was a good idea – in a report advocating the exponential growth of their favorite charter schools – to compare those charters to delightful things such as viruses and cancer:

We also conducted research about when and how exponential growth occurs in the natural world, specifically examining mold, algae, cancer, crystals and viruses. We used these findings in addition to cross-sector lessons to fuel our thinking about fresh directions for the charter sector. The similarities between the natural world and organizational worlds are rather striking and useful for understanding the critical elements of exponential growth.

As our reviewer pointed out, the report never quite explains how the growth of cancer and viruses applies to the growth of charter schools. But even if the authors had somehow managed to do so, we can’t help but feel that the comparison is a bit tone deaf. Setting aside the example of crystals, which we think are rather interesting and attractive (NEPC is housed in Boulder, after all), what we take away from this comparison is that exponential growth in the natural world is not always desirable. It can, in fact, be quite deadly.

Beyond the analogy, the report suffers from an almost complete lack of acceptable scientific evidence or original research supporting the policy suggestions. It presents nine “lessons” or suggestions that are essentially common and vague aphorisms from the business world. Yet it fails to make the case that the suggestions or references are relevant to school improvement.