Rethinking Scale: An Important Foundation for a Complex Challenge

For many who have not been involved in efforts to scale innovative education practices, the idea may seem relatively straightforward: if an idea works, and is good for students, educators are likely to latch on to it, and systems will adapt to allow them to. 

Unfortunately, as we know, the way things work out on the ground is rarely that simple, and education is fraught with subtleties that inevitably lead to often significant unforeseen challenges and setbacks. I would bet that as you’re reading this, at least a few examples jump to mind.

This is the reason that the challenge of “achieving scale” is often discussed; though unfortunately often not in-depth. 

So what makes scale possible?

I recently had the chance to support the How I Know initiative, supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which exposed me to the value of Rethinking Scale: Moving Beyond Numbers to Deep and Lasting Change by Cynthia Coburn. In Rethinking Scale, Coburn argues that efforts to scale must include and focus on four components to be successful in the long term:

  • Nature of change in classroom instruction
  • Issues of sustainability
  • Spread of norms, principles, and beliefs
  • Shift in ownership

While published in 2003, Coburn explores these components with a level of depth that gives Rethinking Scale an ongoing relevance to today’s education landscape. 

A spiritual successor published by Coburn in 2018 explores what conditions are important for districts to adopt new practices from external partners. Taken together,  these two pieces of research comprise a compelling and deep lens through which to rethink our conception of what it means to scale, and what questions we might ask ourselves in our efforts to achieve it.

This blog post will provide an overview of both pieces of research, starting with the four components outlined in Rethinking Scale.

Nature of Change in Classroom Instruction

To be considered ‘at scale,’” Coburn argues, “reforms must effect deep and consequential change in classroom practice … that goes beyond surface structures or procedures (such as changes in materials, classroom organization, or the addition of specific activities) to alter teachers’ beliefs, norms of social interaction, and pedagogical principles as enacted in the curriculum.”

This is arguably the most fundamental change that needs to take place in any successful effort to scale. If a change does not positively impact classroom practices, it is likely not worth scaling. If a change is not scaled in a way that leads to that full impact being replicated, then the changes that have taken place likely do not achieve the full goals of the initiative.

We might ask ourselves, what has changed as a result of this initiative in its current setting? Or, how can we create structures that will enable that same change to take place in other individual classrooms/schools/districts? With that groundwork laid, it becomes important to think through if the reform will be durable in the face of time and changing circumstances.

Scott Marion and Paul Leather provide an illustrative example in Assessment and Accountability to Support Meaningful Learning, where they argue that “Many large-scale assessment programs contribute to the teaching and learning of superficial content knowledge. Teachers, in their rush to ensure that all of the standards have been “covered,” do not feel like they can ignore certain concepts and teach for deep conceptual understanding… Because large-scale assessment and accountability programs drive much of what goes on in classrooms, we need to design programs to support the teaching and learning of deep understanding.”

Issues of Sustainability

“The concept of scale primarily has meaning over time,” Coburn points out. Once again, while this may seem fairly intuitive, it can be easy to overlook this in the heat of strategic planning.

Coburn argues that, because teachers exist within a broader school and district system, for change within individual classrooms to be sustained, there must be a number of mechanisms in place:

  • The presence of a supportive community of colleagues that reinforces normative changes and provides continuing opportunities to learn.
  • Connections with other schools or teachers engaged in similar reform.
  • Normative coherence or alignment between the district policy context and the reform.

These three features can even support the further spread of a change within a district, which is (perhaps not surprisingly) Coburn’s third element of scale.

Spread of Norms, Principles, and Beliefs

Coburn makes a convincing argument that, given the importance of genuine shifts in underlying beliefs, norms, and principles as a goal of scaling, whatever is to be scaled should also be able to spread within the current system in order to ensure coherence around what is actually changing.  “Rather than thinking of spread solely in terms of expanding outward to more and more schools and classrooms, this emphasis on the normative highlights the potential to spread reform-related norms and pedagogical principles within a classroom, school, and district,” she says, providing the following perspectives: 

  • District-level spread not only involves increasing the number of schools that participate, but also the ways in which reform norms and principles influence district policies, procedures, and professional development.
  • School-level not only involves the reform moving to more and more classrooms but also reform principles or norms of social interaction becoming embedded in school policy and routines.
  • Classroom-level reform can spread within as teachers begin to draw on reform norms and principles in aspects of their practice beyond specific reform-related activities or subject matter.

To illustrate the full implications of this idea, Coburn suggests that “the district’s role may be important beyond the support it provides to schools… [it] may be a strategic site for spread itself.”

As Michael Fullan describes in Coherence: Putting Your Inner Drive into Overdrive, “Structure and strategy are not enough. The solution requires the individual and collective ability to build shared meaning, capacity, and commitment to action. When large numbers of people have a deeply understood sense of what needs to be done— and see their part in achieving that purpose—coherence emerges and powerful things happen.”

Shift in Ownership

Finally, Coburn argues, “to be considered ‘at scale,’ ownership over the reform must shift so that it is no longer an ‘external’ reform, controlled by a reformer, but rather becomes an ‘internal’ reform with authority for the reform held by districts, schools, and teachers who have the capacity to sustain, spread, and deepen reform principles themselves.”

Similar to how she views “getting buy-in” to be a piece of a deeper spread of norms, principles, and beliefs, this process of enabling the reform to “take root” can be more deeply understood by viewing the idea from the bottom-up perspective (rather than the top-down “take root” metaphor), asking first about what needs to happen for new members of the initiative to anchor into a position of ownership over this reform.

For this shift to be meaningful, Coburn argues that “one of the key components of taking a reform to [scale is] creating conditions to shift authority and knowledge of the reform from external actors to teachers, schools, and districts.”

There are two considerations in this shift in ownership that Coburn argues are critical for sustainability: decision-making and funding. “Teachers, school leadership, and district leadership need to exercise this reform-centered decision making as they work to sustain the practice in the face of new circumstances, initiatives, and priorities that may or may nor conflict with reform,” she argues.

What Helps Districts Change?

In her recent Under What Conditions Do School Districts Learn From External Partners? The Role of Absorptive Capacity, published with Caitlin C. Farrell and Seenae Chong and based on a longitudinal comparative case study of two departments in one urban school district central office, both working with the same external partner. Coburn argues that the key factor affecting school districts’ ability to learn from external partners is “absorptive capacity.” 

“In education, a number of scholars have recognized the utility of this concept… To date, however, it has not been operationalized in systematic ways.” Examples of features that build absorptive capacity are relevant prior knowledge, communication pathways, and strategic knowledge leadership.

Through a nuanced look at how the impact of two teams’ similar work varied as a result of factors such as these, we are able to glimpse and dissect a rare, intimate look at the intricate and often impossible-to-foresee challenges that present themselves when attempting to scale reform across teams and learner populations. 


Taken together, these two pieces of research will likely be enough to give you pause the next time you hear the word “scale” thrown out casually in a meeting. To give your team’s efforts the best chance possible for success, it would be highly worthwhile to gather together around these ideas in an effort to ground yourself in a rigorous and shared framework for what meaningful scale is, and what foundations need to be in place for it to become a reality.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Erik Day

Erik manages projects for Getting Smart’s strategic advisory partnerships. With a system-oriented outlook and a background in marketing and communication, he oversees the details that ensure our partners’ initiatives are powerful and effective.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.