Scaling For Impact: Our Team Goes to Harvard

Please note: This article was originally published prior to our organization's rebrand to Throughline Learning. As such, all references to our organization use our former name, Highlander Institute.

Members of Highlander Institute meet with their faculty advisor, Brittany Tabor Butler, during a Scaling For Impact Team Time session.
Members of Highlander Institute meet with their faculty advisor, Brittany Tabor Butler, during a Scaling For Impact Team Time session.

During the first week of March 2023, a five-member team from Highlander Institute attended the Scaling For Impact program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Over the course of three days, 18 teams in the education space from across the country came together to discuss case studies, explore frameworks and guidance for scaling, pitch our work and receive feedback, and hear from expert faculty and advisors. This was the first time the program has been held since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the palpable energy and excitement of the in-person learning experience was electric. In reflecting on this experience, our team highlighted the following takeaways:

Investing in Deep Work IS Scale

Prior to this experience, when hearing the word “scale”, our minds typically jumped to the idea of expanding our work to more schools, more students, and more geographies. But as Chris Dede framed for us in his session, the education system is not like a fast food franchise, and people are not french fries. In many instances, focusing on implementing your model in depth through aligned, multi-year partnerships is a dimension of scale in its own right, preparing you to meet the needs of a local context.

Our Culturally Responsive School Change Model has been evolving, becoming more comprehensive since 2019. The disruptions brought on by the pandemic shifted our capacity but did not shift our values and our commitment to centering student experiences, shifting instruction through an instructional equity lens, and elevating stakeholder voices in decision-making. And as showcased in our 2022 Annual Report, this model is working, with our most successful stories of impact yet. Our approach is complex and purposefully aims to work amidst multiple layers (classroom, school, district, student, family, and community). It felt exciting to see this vision validated as we continue to build momentum.

Stories Bridge the Individual Why with Collective Care

One of the strongest rationales for any nonprofit’s work can be found in stories of how the work is experienced by individuals. Within our partner schools, stories help teachers understand how our professional learning may feel, the insights that might be gained, and the impact that is possible — and build excitement for implementation. Stories of students help us test our assumptions and stay focused on the student experience. If we don’t explain our services rooted in these stories, we’re missing a crucial opportunity for connection with people who are hearing about Highlander Institute for the first time.

The very human nature of the field of education makes storytelling an even more compelling conduit between the realities of today and the possibilities of tomorrow. As Irvin Scott emphasized in his talk during the Harvard program, successful organizations have a collective story, and ensure that all members see themselves in the organization’s mission and vision. We are excited to spend time over the coming months to infuse more storytelling into our professional learning services, communications work, presentations, and meetings.

Critical Friends are Invaluable

By creating opportunities to pitch ideas and receive feedback, Scaling for Impact reinforced the importance of external stakeholder perspectives. We were matched with a faculty advisor (shout out to the thoughtful guidance of Brittany Tabor Butler) who joined our conversations all three days and asked probing questions to clarify and push our thinking. After sharing our theory of change (day 1), our organizational identity (day 2), and our next steps action plan (day 3), we heard warm and cool feedback from fellow teams grappling with similar tasks. It was a powerful reminder that our team, who is so authentically invested in our work, should also remember to step back and ask others: What’s resonating? What’s missing or confusing? How can we continue to improve?

The Highlander Institute team is privileged to work with an amazing group of committed school partners who are deeply invested in our school change model and have been instrumental in helping us refine and improve. The work is challenging, and every time we are pushed to clarify our rationale, evidence base, objective — or co-design a way through systemic barriers — we become better equipped to support sustainable school change.

We are grateful for the incredible opportunity the Scaling for Impact retreat provided, and are eager to continue to embed these focus areas in our daily work streams. For more information about the program, please explore Scaling For Impact: Strategies to Enhance and Expand What Works in Education.