In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scale and Sustainability of Education Innovation and Improvement

  • Introduction

Education Scale and Sustainability of Education Innovation and Improvement
Susan Bush-Mecenas, Eleanor Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0240


The feasibility of scaling up and sustaining educational innovations and efforts at improvement has been a subject of scholarly investigation for decades. Many scholars, as well as policymakers and educational leaders, seek to develop educational innovations that can improve schooling not only in a single setting but across multiple schools, districts, or even nationwide. Likewise, reformers typically intend for the improvements they facilitate to last well beyond the duration of a short-term grant or research program. Research has consistently revealed, however, that both scale and sustainability are highly challenging to achieve. While scaling and sustainability are joint goals, often linked empirically, they draw on distinct analytic constructs and pose different methodological challenges. We therefore divide our survey of the research base into separate sections for Scale and Sustainability, although we note the (many) points of overlap and alignment. Both scaling and sustainability have been the subject of theoretical debate as well as empirical investigation. Therefore, we begin our treatment of each topic with a section reviewing varying theoretical treatments of the construct: Theorizing Scale and Theorizing Sustainability. Following this conceptual introduction, each section includes discussion of two subsets of literature. The first concerns the dynamics of externally developed, evidence-based programs and innovations. With respect to scaling, the section Scale: Adoption and Replication addresses the spreading of an innovation developed in one place to other places, with attention to breadth and fidelity. With respect to sustainability, Sustaining Externally Developed Interventions concerns what happens to reform over time, especially after specialized funding or research ends. The second category we consider with regard both to scale and sustainability concerns the more recent turn toward ongoing local improvement efforts rooted in processes of inquiry. With regard to scaling, these studies focus on local variation, design, and adaptation, as explored in Scale: Adaptation and Continuous Improvement. With regard to sustainability, this concerns the ways in which schools and districts can build systems to support continuous improvement in the long term (Sustaining Continuous Improvement). We end with a section on Factors Enabling and Constraining Scaling and Sustainability, which addresses research both on scale-up and sustainability that draws attention to empirical factors that matter for both goals.


A substantial body of scholarship exists on the scale-up of educational innovations. This literature includes multiple ways of Theorizing Scale. One important dimension of difference is between research that concerns the spread of externally developed interventions (Adoption and Replication) and research on efforts to scale a process of improvement, emphasizing the need for local adaptation (Adaptation and Continuous Improvement).

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