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Rethinking Scale: Moving Beyond Numbers to Deep and Lasting Change



The issue of “scale” is a key challenge for school reform, yet it remains undertheorized in the literature. Definitions of scale have traditionally restricted its scope, focusing on the expanding number of schools reached by a reform. Such definitions mask the complex challenges of reaching out broadly while simultaneously cultivating the depth of change necessary to support and sustain consequential change. This article draws on a review of theoretical and empirical literature on scale, relevant research on reform implementation, and original research to synthesize and articulate a more multidimensional conceptualization. I develop a conception of scale that has four interrelated dimensions: depth, sustainability, spread, and shift in reform ownership. I then suggest implications of this conceptualization for reform strategy and research design.
Arkansas Leadership Academy, Adapted June 2006
Cynthia E. Coburn
Educational Researcher
August/September 2003, Vol. 32, No. 6, pp. 3-12
! Four interrelated dimensions of scale: depth, sustainability, spread and transfer of
ownership are filters through which leaders should view change. The goal is not simply
change, but lasting change.
1. Depth: Nature of change
! Does the change go deep into the organization’s beliefs?
! Individual beliefs?
! Does the change have an impact on the classroom or is it simply a surface
! Who is responsible for the change?
2. Sustainability: Endurance over time
! How long will the change endure?
! What strategies are in place to assure sustainability of the change?
3. Spread: Norms, principles, beliefs understood by greater numbers of people
! How widespread is the change?
! Who is involved in the change?
! Who should be involved?
! Who will benefit from the change?
4. Ownership: Shifts in reform ownership (knowledge and authority) to implementers
! Who “owns” the process?
Arkansas Leadership Academy, Adapted June 2006
! Depth
Deep change…change that goes beyond surface structures or procedures (such as changes
in materials, classroom organization…) to alter teachers’ beliefs, norms of social interaction,
and pedagogical principles as enacted in the curriculum. By teachers’ beliefs (we mean)
underlying assumptions about how students learn, the nature of subject matter,
expectations for students, or what constitutes effective instruction. Capturing depth may
require in-depth interviewing and classroom observation, refocused on such indicators as
the nature of instructional tasks, discourse patterns in the classroom, and teachers’
conceptions of knowledge and learning…systematic collection of student work samples…use
of teacher logs.
! Sustainability
The concept of scale has meaning over time. The distribution and adoption of an innovation
are only significant if its use can be sustained in original and even subsequent schools.
Schools that successfully implement reforms find it difficult to sustain them in the face of
competing priorities, changing demands, and teacher and administrator turnover.
Externally-developed school reforms may be especially vulnerable to this problem because
implementation typically involves a short-term influx of resources, professional
development, and other forms of assistance to facilitate implementation that dissipates over
time as external developers turn their attention to other sites. (We need) strategies for
providing schools with the tools they will need to sustain the reform, especially after the
initial influx of resources dissipates. Because classrooms are situated in and inextricably
linked to the broader school and system, teachers are better able to sustain change when
there are mechanisms in place at multiple levels of the system to support their efforts. We
know a lot about challenges to sustainability in the early year of reform. But how do these
challenges different as reforms mature and initial energy, personnel, and funding dissipate?
Arkansas Leadership Academy, Adapted June 2006
Spread (Breadth)
Spreading of reform to greater numbers of classrooms and schools…must involve the spread
of underlying beliefs, norms and principles. Spread at the 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. This type of spread may be
especially important for reforms that challenge conventional or institutionalized approaches
to teaching and learning in significant ways. Recasting spread to include spread of norms
and principles within suggests that the district’s role may be important beyond the support
it provides to schools…the district may be a strategic site for spread itself…creating
knowledgeable leaders who can influence policy, procedures, professional development and
! Ownership
…buy-in or acceptance (is different from) a shift in knowledge of and authority for the
reform. If the leader is the only one who owns the change, it is unlikely that it will be
sustained past the leader’s tenure. It is the old notion that people will support what they
help to create. As the change process progresses, it is important that ownership for the
change transfer to those who must implement it. With the shift in ownership, analysis of the
change process would also shift to the implementers of change. One of the key
components of taking a reform to scale, them, is creating conditions to shift authority and
knowledge of the reform from external actors to teachers, schools, and districts.
Development of the capacity to provide reform-related professional development or other
structures for ongoing teacher and administrator learning may be a central feature for
shifting authority and ownership for the reform. Shift in reform ownership also requires
transferring substantive and strategic decision-making from the reform organization to
district and school leaders. This shift requires that reformers cultivate deep, reform-
centered knowledge among key leadership and model ways to draw upon that knowledge in
ongoing decision-making. Shift in ownership may require that schools and districts develop
Arkansas Leadership Academy, Adapted June 2006
the capacity to generate continued funding for reforms. Shift in reform ownership may be a
central element in sustaining and spreading reform in the face of shifting priorities, changes
in funding, and challenges to policy coherence. Placing reform ownership as a central
element of scale raises the priority for directing reform attention and resources to strategies
that have the potential for enabling schools and districts to assume ownership for the
reform over time. The more challenging a reform is to a teachers’ existing beliefs and
practices, or the more aspects of classroom practice or levels of the system it engages, the
more it may need well-elaborated materials and sustained, ongoing professional
development to achieve depth. Reforms of this nature may require more effort on the part
of reformers to work with multiple levels of the system to encourage normative coherence
and sustainability. The more ambitious the reform, the more challenging it may be to
simultaneously achieve spread, sustainability and depth.
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