Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Approaches to Scaling Innovations Across Schools, an Analysis of Key Theories and Models

  • Toby GreanyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_68-1


The question of how to scale up and sustain successful innovations remains a key challenge for policy and practice in education. For example, Gene Hall (2013: 265) explains, somewhat wearily, that:

Over the last several decades the change ritual has become almost predictable. The process begins with identifying a particular problem or symptom that must be addressed… Next, a specific program, process or product… is selected. Then teachers, schools and districts go through the ceremony of launching the “new way.” Materials are delivered to schools and teachers attend introductory sessions before the new school year begins. The implicit assumption of policymakers and system leaders… is that the “new way” is now in place. Within one to three years there may be an evaluation to see if test scores have indeed increased. All too often, the finding is one of “no significant difference” between the new way and the old way.

This picture of failed reforms remains dispiritingly common, despite significant efforts over the past few decades to understand the principles and processes that underpin scale-up. These efforts have accelerated since the 1990s, when there was a recognition that the dominant diffusion approach in use at that time (i.e., through training and materials) was ineffective. Writing in 1996, Richard Elmore highlighted how rarely innovations impacted on the instructional core of teachers’ classroom practice, arguing that this reflected “the absence of a practical theory that takes account of the institutional complexities that operate on changes in practice” (cited in Glennan et al. 2004: 12).

Writing soon after the start of the new millennium, Glennan et al. (2004: 27) argued that a level of consensus was emerging, at least in the USA, in thinking about scale-up. However, this entry outlines three quite different “schools of thought” (or broad approaches) on scale-up which have emerged since that time, suggesting that consensus had not, in fact, been reached. The first approach – eco-systems - is informed by complexity theory and tends to focus on generating and scaling innovations through diverse lateral networks which allow multiple stakeholders to collaborate (OECD 2015). The second approach – ‘what works?’ – is interested in identifying effective practices through rigorous, scientific research and in replicating these proven practices across multiple schools with high degrees of fidelity. The third approach – Improvement Science - emphasises the importance of practitioner judgement and learning for interpreting and applying evidence across different contexts, but also recognises the importance of school-level cultures and wider factors, and so seeks to generate systematic forms of innovation, evaluation and improvement at scale (Bryk 2015; Resnick 2010). The conclusion draws out and discusses the differences between them and identifies implications for policy, research, and practice.

Definitions and Key Concepts

Before outlining the approaches to scale-up, it is helpful to define key terms.

The first term is “innovation,” which is most simply defined as “doing things differently in order to do them better.” Innovations are certainly novel, at least in the context they are introduced, and can reflect new products, services, processes, and/or organizational designs. In an educational context, therefore, innovations could potentially encompass novel approaches within the existing school offer (e.g., a new approach to pedagogy or the curriculum or to student engagement) or a new approach that extends the traditional school offer (e.g., to help address emerging issues that young people face, such as online safety, childhood obesity, or mental health issues).

Innovations should lead to measurable improvements in outcomes (i.e., “doing things better”), but this is where it can be difficult to distinguish between “innovation” and “improvement,” if both must lead to measurable improvements in outcomes. “Improvement” can be defined as a planned movement from one state to another, where the impact on outcomes is measured solely through existing educational accountability metrics (i.e., usually standardized test scores or school inspection grades). By contrast, the impact of an “innovation” might well include but should also go beyond existing accountability metrics and outcomes, not least because these may not yet exist in many of the areas that require genuine innovation. This approach also helps to distinguish “innovation” from “change,” where “change” implies movement from one state to another but without necessarily any impact on outcomes.

In practice, the texts cited in this entry use the terms “innovation,” “improvement,” and “change” almost interchangeably, so all three are used here. Nevertheless, it is helpful to keep these three definitions in mind when comparing the “schools of thought” because this allows us to see that they can have slightly different objectives, as discussed in the conclusion.

Findings from research into innovation, improvement, and change can help enrich our understanding of scale-up. For example, Hall and Hord have analyzed processes of change in education over several decades (Hall 2013). Through this work they developed the concerns-based adoption model, with its three dimensions: (i) stages of concern assess the emotional and affective aspect of change, showing how individuals move through seven distinct stages as they engage with a new approach; (ii) levels of use evaluate what people are doing relative to an innovation, moving through seven levels of proficiency as they move from novice to expert in the new way of working, while (iii) innovation configurations represent the possible operational forms of a change, capturing the ways in which the application of a procedure varies across different contexts.

These three dimensions have clear implications for how we understand scale-up. For example, they highlight that change is a process not an event; change is always a personal experience, requiring growth in confidence and competence and impacting on emotions, so will differ for each individual; an organization does not change until the individuals within it actually implement the new way; and innovations will usually be adapted – or “mutate” – to meet the context in which they are applied.

The dimensions also help us to evaluate the “schools of thought.” For example, with reference to the “what works?” approach, Hall (2013: 272) highlights that: “In the traditional positivist research paradigm, the assumption is that there are two groups, treatment and control. It is a dichotomous view: users and non-users. The Levels of Use diagnostic… changes the perspective use/non-use to using.”

Turning to the definition of “scale-up,” this is also used interchangeably with concepts such as “implementation” and “replication” in the literature. These latter terms both suggest some level of imposition, the rolling out of a pre-defined approach. “Scale-up” can also have this connotation, but Coburn helps to position it in a more nuanced way by highlighting that successful scale-up requires that the receiving site must take ownership of a new approach if it is to be sustained. This signals the importance of agency, autonomy, and stakeholder engagement in a process of “co-creation” as part of the scale-up process. Coburn’s definition is as follows:

Scaling up not only requires spread to additional sites, but also consequential change in classrooms, endurance over time, and a shift such that knowledge and authority for the reform is transferred from the external organization to teachers, schools, and districts. Thus, I propose a conceptualization of scale comprising four interrelated dimensions: depth, sustainability, spread, and shift in reform ownership (Coburn, 2003: 4, cited in Glennan et al. 2004: 29).

Networks, Complexity, and Innovation Ecosystems

The first “school of thought” – ecosystems – is reflected in the OECD’s work on innovative learning systems (OECD 2015). This report reflects work across multiple countries and is particularly focused on how education systems might need to change in order to develop more flexible and appropriate learning that equips young people for life and work in the twenty-first century.

The thinking is informed by complexity theory. It rejects “excessively bureaucratic models,” “mechanical policy metaphors,” and “the assumption of central policy omnipotence within well-defined and controllable ‘systems,’” arguing instead that “more organic metaphors and models might seem messy and unpredictable, but eco-systems and complexity have become the nature of the contemporary world” (ibid., 17).

This focus on ecosystems seeks to recognize that multiple organizations and constituencies can influence learning and that learning does not happen only in schools. Instead it sees a key role for the “meso level,” which sits above schools/learning providers and comprises various networks, communities, chains, and initiatives. These networks can grow and diffuse innovations by promoting “horizontal connectedness across learning activities and subjects, in and out-of-school” (ibid., 18).

The assumption in this model is thus that innovations will emerge and spread organically as practitioners from diverse contexts interact with each other in networks and in a spirit of curiosity to address learner needs. Mechanistic models of “scale-up” are explicitly rejected (ibid., 81). Instead, the role of policy is to “set conditions and create climates” (ibid., 81), including by regulating, incentivizing, and accelerating change, for example, by reducing standardization and developing appropriate accountability metrics. Meanwhile, the role of system leaders in the meso layer is to find examples of “positive deviance,” to build social capital by linking innovators together in peer-to-peer networks (such as professional learning communities) so that they can learn from and with each other, and to inject knowledge, evidence, and energy so that barriers to progress are unblocked.

“What Works?”: Hard Science and Fidelity to Evidence-Based Practices

The second “school of thought” – “what works?” – seeks to embed evidence-based practice. The rationale for the approach is that education should aim to be like medicine, where practice is underpinned by robust evidence drawn from scientific evaluations, such as randomized controlled trials and other quasi-experimental designs that use control and intervention groups to avoid selection bias. Thus, it is argued, teachers and schools should be required and supported to apply only proven practices that have been rigorously evaluated and shown to lead to measurable improvements in outcomes.

The leading proponents of this approach are Bob Slavin and Nancy Madden, who developed the Success for All (SFA) (see https://www.successforall.org/ accessed 15.3.19) school literacy program in the USA and the Institute for Effective Education (see https://the-iee.org.uk/ accessed 15.3.19) in the UK.

Slavin and Madden see scale-up as primarily about ensuring fidelity to proven approaches. For example, they explain that “unlike many alternative schoolwide change models, SFA is not reinvented for each school staff… (because) we want to be sure that schools are implementing a form of the program that is true to the model that has been evaluated and found to be effective” (Glennan et al.: 140). They argue that a “long co-development process (would risk) losing the initial enthusiasm and readiness for change necessary for a staff to fully embrace a new schoolwide program” (ibid., 140). SFA has a number of features that ensure this consistency, including highly trained facilitators who provide intensive training, together with tightly scripted curriculum materials for teachers. In order to secure buy-in from teachers, SFA requires that at least 80% of staff must vote in a secret ballot to adopt the approach.

Improvement Science: Learning to Improve

Improvement Science has emerged relatively recently as a coherent approach to scale-up, although it builds on long-standing traditions of practitioner engagement in evidence-informed improvement (e.g., through action research and enquiry networks) and on realist evaluation methods that ask “what works, for whom, under what circumstances, and why?” It also draws directly on successful practices in industry and the health sector.

Improvement Science recognizes that organizations are complex and so assumes that teachers and schools must be individually and collectively engaged in a continual process of learning how to improve, thereby developing “practice-based evidence.” This learning is structured through cycles of improvement that are designed to develop, test, and refine interventions aimed at addressing specific problems.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (see https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/ accessed 15.3.19), in the USA, has been integral in promoting Improvement Science in education, which it describes in six steps:
  1. 1.

    Make the work problem-specific and user-centered, starting with the question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?”

  2. 2.

    Variation in performance is the core problem to address, so the aim should be to help everyone learn together how to improve at scale.

  3. 3.

    See the system that produces the current outcomes. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypotheses for change public and clear.

  4. 4.

    We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure. Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

  5. 5.

    Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry. Engage in rapid cycles of Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly.

  6. 6.

    Accelerate and broaden improvements through networked communities.


Anthony Bryk is arguably the key proponent of Improvement Science in education, in his role as President of the Carnegie Foundation, although Lauren Resnick’s (2010) work on organizational routines and the Hall and Hord work on change referenced above have informed the approach. Bryk (2015: 473) positions Improvement Science as a direct alternative to “what works?” arguing that: “randomized field trials are not principally designed to tell us how to make interventions work reliably for different subgroups of students and teachers working under varying contextual conditions. Improvement Science, in contrast, places primacy on variability in outcomes as the central problem to address. It focuses our attention on how task and organization factors combine to create this variability.”

Improvement Science emphasizes the importance of peer networks and is clearly focused on strengthening the professionalism of teachers, so it has some similarities to the ecosystem model. However, Improvement Science is more deliberate and disciplined, with practitioners engaging with researchers and others to develop, test, and enhance the clinical work of schooling, with common measures, inquiry methods, and communication mechanisms to anchor collective problem-solving.


These short overviews highlight significant differences between the three “schools of thought,” at both philosophical and practical levels. The emerging consensus around how to achieve scale-up identified by Glennan et al. in 2004 has not, in fact, emerged. Meanwhile, the pace of social, technological, environmental, and economic change has continued to increase since Glennan et al. were writing. These changes often impact directly on the lives of children and on the work of schools, increasing the need for innovation at scale.

How then should we understand the differences between the three “schools of thought” and what are the implications for policy, practice, and research? In making such an assessment, we must remember the differences between “improvement” and “innovation” outlined above: if we only use existing measures of school effectiveness (such as improvements in standardized pupil test scores) as proxies for effective scale-up, we risk elevating “improvement” over “innovation,” because the latter seeks to be more responsive to real needs and to go beyond existing accountability metrics.

One way to compare the three “schools” is to consider how far they reflect the conclusions reached by Glennan et al., who argued that:
  1. (a)

    The scale-up process is necessarily iterative and complex and requires the support of multiple actors.

  2. (b)

    The actors must jointly address a set of known, interconnected tasks if scale-up is to succeed.

  3. (c)

    Four factors influence the success of scale-up efforts – the characteristics of the intervention, school conditions, assistance provided for implementation, and alignment of the policy and infrastructure supports.


A simple assessment might be that the “ecosystem” approach addresses point (a) most securely, “Improvement Science” addresses (b), and “what works” addresses (c). The ecosystem approach is focused on “innovation”: it prioritizes professional autonomy and assumes that committed professionals will automatically develop and adopt innovative approaches that respond to learner needs if the conditions are right. The “what works?” approach is interested in “improvement,” through the application of tried-and-tested approaches. It positions teachers as clinical technicians, trained to apply proven practices through a policy-controlled process. Improvement Science sits somewhere between these two models: it is focused more on improvement than innovation, but it attempts to do this through processes which activate teacher agency in disciplined and evidence-informed ways.

So how have the three approaches been applied and what is the evidence of their success in achieving scale-up? What are the main critiques in each case?

The “what works?” approach has been the most influential, particularly in the USA and England, where huge amounts of money have been spent on evaluating and scaling up interventions. For example, in the USA, the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program (see https://www.ed.gov/open/plan/investing-innovation-i3 accessed 15.3.19) was established in 2009 to fund the development, evaluation, and scale-up of proven programs. By its final year, in 2016, i3 had funded 171 projects and spent more than $1.4 billion. Some, though by no means all, of the interventions that have been scaled up through this process have been evaluated to show impact, including Success for All. However, critics of “what works” approaches argue that they are slow, expensive, and overly instrumental and that they fail to reflect the importance of context (as expressed in the quote from Bryk above). Equally, the USA and England, where “what works?” has been applied most extensively, are by no means high performers in international assessments such as PISA, suggesting that it is far from a panacea.

The ecosystem approach is harder to assess, either in terms of how far it has been applied and whether it has been successful in achieving scale-up, not least because it is deliberately organic and therefore hard to quantify or evaluate. The OECD report does include examples from different countries to illustrate the approach, although it is clear that these are not proven “best practices” (ibid., 5). Certainly, many school systems around the world are working to foster lateral school networks and to encourage teachers to collaborate in PLCs, but evidence of impact from these initiatives remains thin. Bryk critiques PLCs on the basis that they depend “heavily on individual educators’ tacit knowledge… (with) no formal mechanism for accumulating, further detailing, and testing this individual clinical knowledge so that it might be transformed over time into a collectively held professional knowledge” (ibid., 469).

Finally, the Improvement Science approach is relatively recent, and so has not been widely applied and evaluated, although it does have some early evidence of success. For example, Resnick (2010) describes evaluations of approaches in US schools that reflect many of the principles of Improvement Science and which have had a positive impact. Improvement Science does appear to address the lessons from research in this area, for example, in its consideration of organizational climate issues and its focus on building collective efficacy. However, Improvement Science remains relatively untested and may prove to have its own pitfalls. For example, it assumes that improvement outcomes will always be collectively owned and understood across an organization, but such clarity may only occur in the context of high-stakes accountability systems which, by their nature, limit the scope for innovations that go beyond measurable improvement.

In conclusion, despite the lack of consensus around how to scale up successful innovations, there are some clear implications for policy, practice, and research emerging. The fact that there are (at least) three “schools of thought,” each with its own theoretical assumptions and associated strengths and weaknesses, could be seen as helpful, because it gives policy makers and practitioners choice. This entry has sought to highlight that these choices are not simply about the relative effectiveness of the different approaches. Rather, it is about considering context and aims: if the focus is on “improvement,” then “what works?” or Improvement Science may be most appropriate, but if the focus is on “innovation,” then the ecosystem model may be more suitable. Similarly, from a research perspective, there is an urgent need to strengthen our understanding of when and how schools and educational systems do actually achieve successful innovation at scale.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of NottinghamNottinghamUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Liang See Tan
    • 1
  • Keith Tan
    • 2
  • Monica Ong
  1. 1.National Institute of EducationSingaporeSingapore
  2. 2.Office of Education ResearchNational Institute of EducationSingaporeSingapore