Professional Learning

How To Scale School Success

Replicating successful programs can be challenging used in a different context. Chris Dede, Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Microsoft’s US Partners in Learning’s Academic Program Manager Allyson Knox, discuss a five dimensional model as a framework to success.

February 17, 2010

Running Time: 08:58 min.

One of the great frustrations of educators who become aware of successful programs and want to try them in their own classrooms is the challenge of "scalability." A teacher is achieving great results with her students, other teachers try to replicate that approach, but the outcomes are not as good. A school effectively integrates technology into its curriculum, but, when other schools use similar policies, unanticipated struggles derail their efforts. The key problem that underlies these shortfalls is that the adopters of successful programs tend to think about scaling up as duplication: They adopt an innovation as if it were a recipe instead of evaluating the successful strategy and adjusting it to work in a new, and different, context.

Creating a Scalability Model

In an effort to help make the task of adopting successful programs easier and more effective, we went to work on creating a scalability model that could be applied to all kinds of programs. Building on the work of Cynthia E. Coburn's 2003 work entitled Rethinking Scale: Moving Beyond Numbers to Deep and Lasting Change, we developed a model that could work on multiple dimensions simultaneously so that programs could be adapted in less time with enhanced success.

Crucial to the refinement of this model was an invitational research conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Scaling Up Success: A Usable Knowledge Conference. This conference synthesized insights from leading researchers working on challenges of transfer, generalization, scaling up, and adaptation of successful educational interventions. Participants included scholars studying these challenges, educators from implementation sites involved in their research, and national and state policymakers.

The conference afforded representatives of these three communities the opportunity to share their insights and to connect the "missing dots" between theory and practice that often undercut promising innovations. This conference led to the publication of a 2005 book called Scaling Up Success: Lessons from Technology Based Educational Improvement edited by Chris Dede, James P. Honan, and Lawrence C. Peters.

Scaling Up Using The Five Dimensional Model

Evolving out of Dr. Colburn's work, the conference, and Dr. Dede's book, a "scale framework" was developed. The framework presents a five dimensional model for scaling up educational improvements. These dimensions can be applied to all kinds of innovations and can be explored sequentially or simultaneously. They are:

  • Depth: To understand why an innovation works well, it helps to discover the causes of its effectiveness. Then it is important to establish what aspects are crucial and which parts can be altered without reducing impact. Improving depth can make an innovation more desirable to others by increasing its power.
  • Sustainability: If adopters find that they lack some of the conditions for success in the original program, they can develop variations of the innovations that better fit their own situation. Their adaptation may produce lesser, but worthwhile gains for their population. The effective use of antibiotics illustrates this concept: Antibiotics are a powerful "design," but worshiping the vial that holds them or taking all the pills at once are ineffective strategies for usage -- only administering pills at specified intervals works as an implementation strategy.
  • Spread: It may be necessary -- and desirable -- to modify a program to reduce the expense and level of resources needed while retaining effectiveness. For example, a highly effective innovation may scale best when a somewhat less powerful, but still effective version requires a smaller and more affordable amount of professional development.
  • Shift: In adapting an innovation, it makes sense for those who have evaluated, interpreted and redesigned that innovation to claim ownership of their adaptation of the program and assume responsibility for its success.
  • Evolution: Once a program or innovation is adapted and moved into a different classroom, school, district or state, it will inevitably be adapted further by the new community of users. It is important to scrutinize this process to gain insights that can further improve the scalability and impact of the program.

Applying the Model in a Real World Setting

Since 2005 this model has guided the Microsoft US Partners in Learning (US PiL) Mid-Tier grantees' scale strategies. The goal of the Mid-Tier Program has been to find pockets of innovation, to scale those innovations on multiple dimensions by leveraging relationships and resources, to examine the role of technology throughout the scaling process, and to document the mid-tier projects’ evolution and outcomes.

Ten projects were selected through a competitive process in June 2005 and constituted the Mid-Tier Learning Community. To illustrate the process of scaling using this five-dimensional process, we can describe how we helped one of these grantees -- the Lemon Grove school district in California -- to scale up a promising technology strategy.

Lemon Grove is a lower income town of 25,000 people just outside of San Diego. This community has a small district comprised of 8 schools and 4,000 students -- 75 percent are of minority decent, 40 percent speak languages other than English. At the time of our work there, Darryl LaGace was the Lemon Grove district chief technology officer. (He now leads San Diego School District's technology efforts.) He had developed a one-to-one experimental academy, called LemonLink, at a Lemon Grove middle school and wanted to expand the model to a second middle school in Lemon Grove, and to the Emerald Middle School in the San Pasqual School District.

Lemon Grove's New Technology

As part of the LemonLink model, every student received an e-Pad computer tablet along with a free, filtered, high-speed connection in their home. The tablet is a locally designed, portable electronic device. The connection links students directly to the district's private learning network and provides 24-hour access to district programs, files, and rich educational resources.

The LemonLink model was designed to be interactive, engaging, and responsive to each student's learning needs and style. To accomplish those ambitious goals, the program created a teachers online portal that was preloaded with curriculum, templates, and resource feeds to help with proper pacing and assessment of learning.

The students' e-Pads replaced textbooks with a single portal to all their resources, as well as related interactive activities; and every family had round-the-clock access to the environment, enabling kids who were behind to have more time to catch up. The ability to optimize outside-of-school time was key to accelerating learning for all.

Importantly, the deployment of the project was designed to be responsive to the typical obstacles inherent in the change process.

To scale beyond the initial middle school both to another school in their district and to a school in a neighboring district, the Lemon Grove educational team applied the five dimensions to transfer their technology innovation. How did they act on each dimension?

The power of the Lemon Grove model is rooted in the teachers' ability to deliver student-centric instruction. The model depends on the ability of participating teachers to teach in a radically different way than they had before. It asked teachers to consider multiple student learning styles, to meet multiple learning needs simultaneously, and to respond to real-time assessments during instructional time. Differentiated instruction is challenging and allows for little "down time" during a class period.

The Five Dimensional Model at Work

In order to capture the depth of Lemon Grove's model, we asked teachers using the model about the impact of LemonLink on their teaching. Teachers provided key information on the effective aspects of the program, and gave adapters some ideas about how they could increase depth. For example, they established that professional development would be essential in making the LemonLink program work well in other schools.

One of the great byproducts of LemonLink was how it allowed teachers to use the technology to do administrative tasks more quickly. That added efficiency made it possible to concentrate more on teaching and learning. Leveraging technology in this way was not the primary reason for deploying e-Pads, yet it helped teachers sustain the primary objective of enabling differentiated instruction.

Lemon Grove leaders knew that they needed to continue professional development beyond the face-to-face training in LemonLink, in order for teachers to feel supported over time. They found a way to reduce the added professional development costs by supporting site-based, lead teachers to build technology-mediated support networks. These networks provide a virtual space where teachers spread best practices and resources, exchange ideas, and draw upon existing expertise.

Lemon Grove also standardized certain instructional items so that they could be easily spread among educators. These items included curricular materials, classroom-website templates, classroom-management strategies, training packages, and mentoring strategies.

Creating Lemon Grove teacher-leaders empowered expert teachers to own the new program, and also provided a way for other teachers to shift their requests for continued support from outside experts to their own colleagues. Lemon Grove's teacher-leaders had in-depth knowledge and experience in collaboration, integration of technology and curriculum, and sharing of best practices.

Lemon Grove leaders recognized that teachers involved in LemonLink needed time to reflect, discuss, and refine their new teaching strategies on a regular basis, so they established ongoing collaborative teacher meetings where teachers could help evolve the model. The small size of the community -- there are only 4,000 students in the entire district -- allowed for ample model refinement on multiple levels.

The Stakeholders

Teachers, principals, parents, and administrators have tightly woven relationships and the superintendent has created an open atmosphere where feedback and reflection are welcome. Because the superintendent wants this model to grow, change, and survive, he listens carefully to recommendations and ideas from all stakeholders involved.

In Lemon Grove, educators did not apply a strict, linear progression of the dimensions. Instead, they worked on multiple dimensions simultaneously as part of the scaling process. By addressing several dimensions at once, adapters can enhance success. For example, sustainability is fostered by spread, and evolution is accelerated by shift.

Of course, this developmental process of designing for scale does not mean that every innovation is scalable. Suppose, for example, that a curriculum is based on scientists from a local federal lab frequently coming to the classroom and mentoring individual students. While valuable for the participants, this innovation is a poor candidate for scaling up because few schools would have such an opportunity. By applying some dimensions early -- evaluating a program's depth or sustainability, for instance -- it is possible to determine the likelihood that a program can be scaled up for a new context.

As mentioned earlier, Lemon Grove is part of a larger "scale learning community" funded by Microsoft US Partners in Learning. This community is comprised of ten grantees whose projects range from creating serious online learning games, to 21st century faculty development of pre-service teachers, to teacher professional development.

The community's goals are to explore scale processes, experiment with technology as a lever to achieve scale, and document findings. Over the past five years grantees have worked through scale challenges such as: letting go of what is "yours," reducing programmatic costs, how to become a competent "scaler," and openly sharing failures.

The community's lessons-learned and continue to help leaders not only to think more deeply about scale, but to also create plans that work through the cruel realities when attempting to grow a project in a constantly changing environment. The next phase of work for Microsoft US Partners in Learning is to establish the Scale Fellows program. This program will leverage cases describing the Mid-Tier grantees experiences with scale and the scale framework. The Scale Fellows will be trained to assist US education leaders on scale issues and strategies.

Microsoft remains committed to learning more about what it takes to scale up success in education and is poised to help scale up this information.

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