Costs and Considerations in Scaling-up Innovations
School innovations deserve a balance of skepticism, enthusiasm, and tougher scrutiny that weighs all costs and benefits
EAST LANSING, Mich. (Mar. 14, 2013) – Education innovations dominate the education reform conversation, however education has a long history of adopting fads with little or no lasting impact on the school system as a whole. To move the needle and have long-lasting impact, any innovation must move from a few schools to a great many, so it can have a regional or national impact. A new policy brief released today investigates whether innovations are scalable and able to make a difference widely, using three commonly proposed innovations as examples. The brief finds that scalability is very challenging.
What Does It Take to Scale Up Innovations? was written by Professor Ben Levin with the University of Toronto. It was published by the National Education Policy Center, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
Levin is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). His work focuses on advancing the use of research in shaping education policy, improving the understanding of large-scale improvement in education, and the amelioration of the impacts of poverty and inequality in education.
In an effort to create a more systematic way to investigate innovations in education and assess their scalability, Levin analyzed three widely discussed programs: Teach For America (TFA), KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), and the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), which has already spawned the U.S. Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods program.
Levin determined there are barriers and opportunities to the scalability of these programs in five key areas: (1) cost, (2) human capacity, (3) tools and infrastructure, (4) political support, and (5) external or non-school factors.
Levin points out "There appear to be significant challenges in moving any innovation to a level that would reach even a large minority of the students across the country for whom the program is intended."
He singles out cost as a significant barrier, "All three of the examples here do require additional resources." However, he notes that "a higher cost for an innovation is not necessarily a bad thing; a more expensive model can be more cost-effective if it results in better outcomes."
Of all of the factors that enable or hinder scalability, human capital can be as or more significant than cost issues. "Some innovations depend on unusual levels of staff skill and commitment, which are very hard to replicate on a much larger scale (as is organizational culture)."
Levin urges a more rigorous, disciplined approach toward innovations, including evaluations done by independent or neutral parties, with organizations making their data available to researchers. He cautions that policymakers should avoid the temptation of proclaiming small-scale innovative programs as solutions to large-scale problems in education.
In terms of political support, "reforms cannot be adopted, or sustained once they are adopted, unless there is ongoing support from elected leaders, from school and district leaders and, in the end, from rank-and-file teachers, students, and parents."
Find Ben Levin's report, What Does It Take to Scale Up Innovations? An Examination of Teach for America, Harlem Children's Zone, and the Knowledge is Power Program, on the GLC website:
Also find it on the National Education Policy Center website:
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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.