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Scale-Up and Sustainability

**Exploring the process of scaling up. (2007, Spring). Threshold Magazine: Exploring the Future of Education, 16-17. Available at


This graphic, which draws from previous implementation research (predominantly from the Coburn piece also included in this tab), outlines the dimensions a district should consider when working to bring a program or reform to scale. For each of these dimensions—including depth, sustainability, spread, shift and evolution—the image notes potential both leverage points and challenges that must be overcome to achieve each stage of scalability.


**Coburn, C. (2003). Rethinking scale: Moving beyond numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational

Researcher. 36(6), 3-12. Available at /3.abstract


This article suggests that traditional definitions of scale focus too narrowly on breadth—that is, they focus on simply expanding number of schools reached by a reform—and fail to account for the depth of change needed for sustained reform. The author outlines four dimensions of a more comprehensive understanding of scale: the depth at which classroom practice changes, the extent to which new approaches can be sustained over time, the spread of underlying beliefs within a system, and the shift in reform ownership from external partners to districts, schools, and teachers who can sustain the reform.


Spillane, J., Reiser, B., & Gomez, L. (2006). Policy implementation and cognition: The role of human, social, and distributed cognition in framing policy implementation. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in educational policy implementation: Confronting complexity (pp. 47-64). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Available for purchase at


This chapter focuses on the role of interpretation in the implementation of new policies as 1) individuals make sense of policies, conditions, and actions, and as 2) these same individuals interact with others in personal and professional networks.  Based on a review of the literature on human sense-making, the authors argue that implementers of new policies necessarily interpret those policies based on their prior experiences and knowledge, from which they have constructed mental models (or cognitive schemas).  These mental models help them understand the world around them by mediating new information the individual encounters.   While this process is necessary for learning, it can lead to three common problems in implementation: 

  • Different individuals (with different cognitive frames) will construct different interpretations of the same message/policy/data.  These interpretations can be highly predictive of the individuals’ differing levels of implementation.
  • New ideas are often misunderstood as familiar, leading to a gap between policy intent and teachers’ understandings.
  • An individual’s understanding may focus on superficial features, missing the
    deeper relationships – a situation that is especially common for novices. 

The authors then review lessons from a second line of research that focuses on the social aspects of sense-making, noting that implementers’ understandings of new policies are influenced by institutional and professional contexts that establish norms and expectations, by social interactions (e.g. through PLCs) that create shared understandings, and by organizational arrangements (e.g., central office silos) that may contribute to multiple and competing interpretations.  In the final section of the chapter, the authors explain how implementation is shared across a range of people—such as teachers and school leaders—in a variety of settings – from grade-level meetings, professional development meetings, and informal gatherings to classroom exchanges between teachers and students. With this “distributed cognition” perspective— the idea that understanding is distributed across a number of interlocking systems that all contribute simultaneously to our sense-making process—the authors conclude that in order to successfully translate a complex policy into practice, implementers must realize the different sense-making practices and how they impact implementation.


**This document is considered a priority reading.