In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scaling Up Research-based Educational Practices

  • Introduction
  • Conceptualizations of Scaling Up in Education
  • Overviews of Research on Scaling Up
  • Proof of Efficacy of Scaled-Up Research-Based Practices
  • Factors Affecting Scaling Up of Research-Based Practices
  • Scaling Up in Mathematics
  • Scaling Up in Reading and Writing
  • Scaling Up Comprehensive School Reform
  • Scaling Up at System Level to Improve Learning
  • Scaling Up through Improvement Networks and Partnerships
  • Scaling Up Centers and Sites

Education Scaling Up Research-based Educational Practices
Cathy Wylie, Jo MacDonald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0254


Scaling up innovations whose use has resulted in improvements in teaching and learning has been a growing field in educational research and practice in recent decades. Interest has two main spurs: the evident gap between educational research findings and their take-up and use to improve teaching and learning, and the persistent challenges of ensuring high levels of educational achievement for all. Scaling up was originally conceived in terms of numbers: the spread of proven practice from the original sites to many schools, or across a whole system. Scaling up innovation began with testing research-based designs and evaluating their efficacy, followed by implementation. Successful implementation of research-based practices meant attention to fidelity, and thus to constructing materials, guides, and processes, and to providing support from the original designers. In turn this meant more attention to understanding variations in how well schools implemented an intervention: was it due to school-level factors, district- or system-level factors, the nature of the student population, or factors associated with the intervention? There are some enduring programs or interventions that fit this model, some based on whole-school reform, some on particular curriculum areas or approaches. Other interventions have been less successful. More recently, scaling-up work has also included research-educator-administrator partnerships and networks, using improvement design cycles, learning from variability, and expecting that innovations will evolve and be adapted in different contexts, rather than replicated. There has also been increasing attention paid in this branch of scaling-up work to building in ongoing attention to evidence of efficacy, and plan-do-study-review cycles into professional identity and practice, in order to strengthen teacher, network, and school and administration capability, as well as agency, ownership, and community. Most countries have evaluations of innovative programs or approaches showing gains for teaching and learning that failed to take hold or endure. Often this is because of structural reasons beyond the agency or control of those involved, due to changes of government or system decision makers. Other key obstacles are evident in the lack of change in the constraints around how teachers and schools can work. These constraints include competing calls on time, rigid accountabilities and ways resources can be used, expectations of immediate large gains, and mismatched measures of student achievement. There are too many such evaluations for this bibliography to cover. However, key articles that discuss these core challenges to scaling up well-founded research-based practices are included.

Conceptualizations of Scaling Up in Education

What is scaling up, and how has it been conceptualized? This section provides key articles that chart the expansion of research on scaling up as knowledge about educational innovation and reform has grown and deepened. For an understanding of the challenges motivating and taxing scaling up, Elmore 1996, Elmore 2016, and Thomson 2014 furnish critiques of the concept. Coburn 2003 provides a seminal article, often referred to, on the dimensions of scaling up, with a recent expansion in Morel, et al. 2019. Glennan, et al. 2004 summarize a useful collection of papers showing the shift in understanding of scaling up. Cohen and Ball 2007 and Dede 2006 provide insights into factors of design and support that enable some scaling up reforms and research-based innovations to succeed in improving teaching and learning where others fail. Bryk 2015 and Cannata and Rutledge 2017 make the case for the increasing emphasis on improvement research and structured network or reform communities of practice.

  • Bryk, Antony. 2015. 2014 AERA Distinguished Lecture. Accelerating how we learn to improve. Educational Researcher 44.9:467–477.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X15621543

    Key article introducing improvement research through structured networked communities, a user-centered approach aiming to build practice-based evidence that understands and learns from variability. Includes succinct critiques of randomized trials resulting in “implementation with fidelity” and professional learning community approaches. Notes the increasing complexity of educators’ work and school organization, and the importance of “seeing the system” and context.

  • Cannata, Marisa, and Stacey Rutledge. 2017. Introduction to new frontiers in scaling up research. Peabody Journal of Education 92.5:559–568.

    DOI: 10.1080/0161956X.2017.1368629

    Starts with the gap between increased government funding for “what works” and the take-up of proven programs, pointing to the importance of understanding what is involved in implementation and scaling up. Identifies four themes: focus on improvement rather than implementation, focus on scaling as a process rather than outcome, the role of adaptation, and questions around what constitutes a reform community of practice.

  • Coburn, Cynthia E. 2003. Rethinking scale: Moving beyond numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher 32.6:3–12.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X032006003

    Seminal article that brought together existing research on scaling up and implementation challenges, showing the importance of gathering evidence about deep changes in teaching practice, norms, principles, and beliefs; ownership of the reform by teachers and schools; and sustainability, as well as spread.

  • Cohen, David K., and Deborah Loewenberg Ball. 2007. Educational innovation and the problem of scale. In Scale-up in education. Vol. 1, Ideas in principle. Edited by Barbara Schneider and Sarah-Kathryn McDonald, 19–36. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Engaging discussion of innovation in education, scale in terms of depth as well as spread, why innovations in US schooling have often failed, why shallow changes have succeeded most, and why practitioner innovations rarely spread. Points to the importance of “elaboration” in changing teaching practices, iterative innovation design and development, substantial scaffolding, and sufficient infrastructure and support.

  • Dede, Chris. 2006. Scaling up: Evolving innovations beyond ideal settings to challenging contexts of practice. In Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Edited by R. Keith Sawyer, 551–566. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Interesting discussion of successful scaling of four educational innovations to bridge the knowledge-action gap, in the context of adaptation and evolution in ecosystems and societies. Describes the effectiveness of identifying and embedding the conditions for success, evaluating and aligning the fit between innovations and intended contexts of use, undertaking continuous inquiry for sustainable progress, and purposefully designing when identified conditions for success are unlikely. Argues for a “scalability index.”

  • Elmore, Richard. 1996. Getting to scale with good educational practice. Harvard Educational Review 66.1:1–27.

    DOI: 10.17763/haer.66.1.g73266758j348t33

    Seminal discussion of the difficulties of replicating good educational practice at scale and changing the fundamental conditions of teaching and learning to make learning more engaging and challenging and thus improve student outcomes. Insightful analysis of weaknesses in US progressive reforms and large-scale curriculum development projects, leading into important principles that remain highly relevant.

  • Elmore, Richard. 2016. “Getting to scale . . .” it seemed like a good idea at the time. Journal of Educational Change 17.4:529–537.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10833-016-9290-8

    Reflective critique of notions of implementation and best practice given bureaucratic and institutionalized cultures of schooling and the weight of context. Critiques scaling as policy-driven reform that seeks uniformity in the face of complexity. Sees more gains through the development of theories and practices of learning through human interaction and the creation of culture rather than adaptation to existing institutional cultures. Describes patterns evident in such powerful learning environments.

  • Glennan, Thomas K., Susan J. Bodilly, Jolene R. Galegher and Kerri A. Kerr. 2004.Expanding the reach of education reforms: What have we learned about scaling up educational interventions?. RAND Research Brief. Santa Monica, California.

    Summary of the learning from the fifteen scale-up projects included in the 2004 RAND collection and reviews of the literature, stressing the shift from a replication model to a complex iterative and interactive set of processes, and the importance of a shift in ownership from the originators to practitioners.

  • Morel, Richard Paquin, Cynthia Coburn, Amy Koehler Catterson, and Jennifer Higgs. 2019. The multiple meanings of scale: Implications for researchers and practitioners. Educational Researcher 48.6:369–377.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X19860531

    Tackles the varied conceptualizations of ‘scale’ across a range of fields including education, and describes four conceptual approaches that can change over time: adoption, which can have a cumulative impact on practices even if superficially implemented; replication of procedures and therefore outcomes; adaptation to local contexts, such as continuous improvement approaches; and reinvention, involving intentional and systematic experimentation. Useful discussion of the implications for researchers and reformers.

  • Thomson, Pat. 2014. “Scaling up” educational change: Some musings on misrecognition and doxic challenge. Critical Studies in Education 55.2:87–103.

    DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2014.863221

    Thought-provoking critique using a Bourdieusian lens to understand the failure of scaling up reforms in education, which she suggests are usually seen as a process failure of professionals and institutions. Uses examples from England and Australia to discuss the limitations on scaling up “success” or individual excellence in practice, due to inequitable schooling hierarchies and privileging of some forms of knowledge.

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