Scaling Up Education Reforms

A Primer on Coburn's Four Dimensions of Scale as it Applies to the Standards Implementation Matrix

In Cynthia Coburn's 2003 article, "Rethinking Scale: Moving Beyond Numbers to Deep and Lasting Change,” she outlines a conceptual approach to scaling up instructional reforms within schools and districts. Her approach contrasts with others because of its reliance on four interrelated dimensions of scale that work together to build capacity within school systems, both district-level and site-level, for local educators to own reforms. The value of this multidimensional approach lies in its ability to address systemic root causes of implementation failure through an emphasis on developing in-depth, sustained ownership of reform practices by those most responsible for implementing those practices.

Coburn's four dimensions of scale are:

These four dimensions serve as a framework for the content in the California Standards Implementation Matrix. Each dimension has been taken into consideration, along with current California experiences and examples, to select the key actions that are included in the matrix. It is important to recognize, though, that these are selected actions, not a comprehensive set of possibilities. In addition, the four dimensions themselves are not sequential. For example, ownership does not come at the end of the cycle after the completion of the other three dimensions. It may develop over time, as discussed below, but ownership — like each of the interconnected dimensions — needs to be nurtured throughout the implementation process and beyond.

Lessons Learned from Research on Standards/Reform Implementation

Another source of input to the California Standards Implementation Matrix was other past and current research on standards-based reform. The literature on standards reform in the 1980s, 90s, and more recently, provides rich background and context about each of Coburn's four dimensions and what they entail. Key lessons from this research literature are outlined below for each dimension. See the Annotated Bibliography for a synopsis of each of the references.

Depth Back to top

Meaningful change in instructional practice that leads to improvement in student outcomes. Deep change generally requires educators to examine their underlying beliefs about how students learn best and what constitutes effective instruction. Depth also yields changes in observable behaviors, bringing them into alignment with the core intentions of the reform.

Coburn's emphasis on depth as a key element of scale takes into account the fact that reforms often plateau, or stall out, with only superficial changes in instructional practice, and disappointing outcomes. Fuhrman (2001) has a series of readable chapters on how this happened nationally during standards-based reform in the 1990s. Cohen and Ball (2001) also address the lack of depth in many instructional reforms:

"Because interventions in instruction aim at improvement, and therefore change, they depart in some degree from current practice. Therefore, enacting them requires practitioners, students, and others to learn new knowledge, skills, and practices; to relearn forgotten knowledge and skills; or to mobilize the will to use more effectively what they already know and can do…Few interveners provide substantial learning opportunities for teachers, school leaders, students, and parents.” (pp. 76–77)

This pattern of limited change is particularly true for models of instruction that require more ambitious teaching and learning. For example, in the 1980s and 90s in California, changes in instruction, curriculum, assessment, and professional development were adopted in policy but were only partially implemented. The chapter by Cohen and Barnes (1993) in the book Teaching for Understanding details California's experience with changes in mathematics; see also Cohen and Hill (2000). Today's standards call for similarly complex instruction and teaching for understanding.

Judith Warren Little, in an often-cited article, analyzed "Teachers' Professional Development in a Climate of Educational Reform” (Little, 1994). Reflecting on the kind of deep change required of teachers seeking to teach for understanding, Little called for new, more substantive forms of professional development, which are more common now than in the 1990's but are still not necessarily well understood or implemented.

"The training-and-coaching strategy that dominates local professional development has much to recommend it when considered as a balanced part of a larger configuration, and when linked to those aspects of teaching that are properly rendered as transferable skills. But the training model is problematic. The content of much training communicates a view of teaching and learning that is at odds with present reform initiatives [then, "substantive conversations,” now "text-based discussions”]…In addition, principles of 'good training' are frequently compromised in practice. In particular, schools and districts demonstrate far less capacity for classroom consultation and support than is required by the training and coaching model…Finally, to attain results from the training/coaching model requires a consistency of purpose and a coordination of effort that is not the norm in many districts.” (p. 123)

Little asserted that the forms of instruction being espoused required that "persons in local situations grapple with what broad principles look like in practice,” which requires:

"adequate 'opportunity to learn' (and investigate, experiment, consult, or evaluate) embedded in the routine organization of teachers' work day and work year. It requires the kinds of structures and cultures, both organizational and occupational, compatible with the image of 'teacher as intellectual' (Giroux's phrase) rather than teacher as technician. And finally, it requires that teachers and others with whom they work enjoy the latitude to invent local solutions — to discover and develop practices that embody central values and principles, rather than to 'implement' or 'adopt' or 'demonstrate' practices thought to be universally effective. This assertion acknowledges both the uncertainty surrounding best practice and the complexity of local contexts.” (p. 109)

School-based professional learning opportunities that reflect the kind of approach described by Little, such as professional learning communities (PLCs), are now commonplace. But the content depth with which they operate is variable; see Stosich (2016) for a comparison of different PLC forms and outcomes:

"Teachers were more likely to revise their instructional beliefs and practices in ways that reflected the goals of standards when their collaborative work was focused on designing, adapting, and improving specific instructional plans, curricular resources, and students' work rather than more superficial discussions of practice…[when they] approached their work together as joint inquiry.” (p. 1725)

Sustainability Back to top

The development of structures and policies to support multiple levels of the system as the reform is adopted and adapted over time. These structures might include professional learning communities or formal networks of teachers and schools that learn with and from each other in order to deepen the impact of the reform. Sustainability is also fostered through supportive and knowledgeable leadership that maintains focus and guides continuous improvement.

It takes time to achieve deep and broad changes in practice, let alone sustain them. Too often, misguided hope for a "quick fix” leads to early disappointment, or some new idea comes along to divert attention.

"There is ample evidence that sustainability may be the central challenge of bringing reforms to scale. Schools that successfully implement reforms find it difficult to sustain them in the face of competing priorities, changing demands, and teacher and administrator turnover.” (Coburn, 2003, p. 6, multiple references)

To create the conditions for sustained attention to the implementation of reforms, it is critical to have supportive structures and policies, such as professional development structures, time schedules that allow for job-embedded educator learning, formal expectations, and norms of reflection.

"For reforms to last, they need to build a public constituency and district infrastructure to support teachers and schools enacting the innovation. Infrastructure consists of the organizational structures that provide a forum for the engagement of diverse stakeholders to understand and support each other in the innovation practices.” (Cannata, 2017, p. 40)

Leadership is also essential to the sustainability of reforms. Leadership distributed throughout the multiple levels of the system allows for resilience in the face of the staffing turnover that so often occurs. Turnover in top leadership positions is frequently cited as a cause of reform failure. In contrast, districts like Garden Grove Unified School District in California have cultivated internal leadership over many years, and have built structures and a culture that sustains improvement (Perry et al., 2017).

Fullan writes of the need to coordinate top-down and bottom-up approaches to reform, as neither is fully successful alone (1994). His colleagues, Andy Hargreaves and Mel Ainscow (2015), have written about more recent wide-scale reform in which districts play a key role "leading from the middle” to support schools, respond to state guidelines, and form networks of schools and districts learning together. Such strategies may help promote sustainability over time by allowing schools the flexibility to adapt to reform demands under the guidance of a coherent district vision, one that encourages local experimentation in pursuit of common goals.

Continuous improvement is an orientation that allows for the changes that will be needed to sustain reforms over time by adapting to different contexts, while keeping a clear focus on an important goal. Bryk and colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation have profiled districts that engage in continuous improvement (Park et al., 2013), including districts that have adapted tools and processes from the medical profession, to help educators set a focus, analyze the current system and identify changes that can lead to an improvement, define measures of success, and engage in iterative tests to refine changes based on formative feedback (Bryk et al., 2015).

Spread Back to top

Evidence of in-depth changes across multiple classrooms and schools; not just universal exposure and awareness, but, to achieve depth at scale, full implementation within a variety of contexts. Spread also includes looking beyond instructional practices to the other elements of the educational system, like local policy and funding, that support or undermine those instructional practices. Both sustainability and spread require coherent system changes.

A common finding in research about implementation of any new program is that while some teachers take on new practices, many of them make only modest changes (Fuhrman, 2001). In other words, there is considerable variability in implementation. Some easier aspects of a new program may spread widely, but other more difficult components may be rare or may be interpreted in many different ways.

"Variation is the typical response to policy change, especially in our very decentralized education system. Much has been written about how implementers' views of reforms and the incentives for compliance (often called 'will') as well as their underlying knowledge, access to resources, and belief systems (often called 'capacity') affect their responses.” (Fuhrman, 2001, p. 263; see also McLaughlin, 1987)

The kinds of professional learning advocated by Judith Little (see Depth) also address variability. When teachers work together as colleagues, and become able to examine practice openly and deeply together, then all teachers are expected and supported to change. Over time, good, adaptive practices will spread, and more teachers will be encouraged to risk major changes. Structures like PLCs can provide this sort of collaborative and transformative opportunity.

Reducing variability is a key goal of the improvement science methods that Tony Bryk (2015) has championed in education. These methods begin with using data to see the variability in performance that exists across classrooms and schools, then recognizing and learning from "bright spots,” and deliberately testing out new change ideas where they are needed. See Sustainability for more on continuous improvement.

Coherence across elements of the system can also support spread. For example, educator evaluation systems should incorporate and align with desired instructional practices, or educators will feel pulled in different directions. One part of planning for broad system change is examining the different elements of the system to achieve greater coherence.

Standards, assessments, and curriculum resources are at the policy core of standards-based reform, and their alignment is of fundamental importance. Fuhrman notes the variations in these elements in the 1980s and 90s as a consequence of policy design choices (p. 265). The absence of model curricula, new materials, and model teaching units seemed to Fuhrman and colleagues to be a major gap in coherence, and the lack of materials is also a concern raised today.

Roles and structures to support educator learning are also critical elements of system design, as they support the capacity building that is needed; the role of teacher leaders is currently of particular interest (Centerview, 2017). Coherence — and ultimately spread — is achieved when these roles and structures are focused and directed toward standards-based reform.

Ownership Back to top

Also referred to by Coburn as "shift in reform ownership,” this dimension involves acceptance of authority, knowledge, and sustainability by local educators. The reform must not just be something required by external authorities, but something deeply held by educators who see it as the way they do business, and who feel empowered and able to make improvements consistent with the underlying principles of the reform. As owners, educators would foster conditions for ongoing teacher and leader learning, funding for activities essential to the sustainability of the reform, and use of reform knowledge to guide their own decision-making.

The literature cited by Coburn includes several studies of comprehensive school reform, in which external models were brought wholesale into new schools. In this context, internal ownership was the end product of the professional development and implementation that led educators to have the knowledge and competence to take over ownership. With current standards-based reform, which is driven by external standards but doesn't entail a full external package of curriculum, instruction, and support practices, teachers may own the reform sooner by taking the lead in local implementation.

Research on professional development also shows the importance of teacher choice. When teachers have a say in the content and mode of professional learning, the fit to local needs is likely to be greater and teacher agency and ownership will be enhanced (Calvert, 2016).

Even if buy-in can occur early on, full informed ownership comes only after practice and mastery. The Levels of Use framework from the Concerns-Based Adoption Model lays out successive stages of understanding and use of new programs, from Orientation through Mechanical and Routine use, to Refinement, and then Integration and Renewal (Hord et al., 1987; resources on the SEDL website). Recognizing that there are stages to learning can be reassuring, as long as expectations and structures support continuous improvement and Sustainability.

Peurach and Glazer (2012) provide an interesting example of implementation at scale for Success for All (SFA), including the SFA adaptation of the Levels of Use framework. They argue that "organizational replication can be understood as a long-term enterprise in which program providers and schools collaborate to produce, use, improve, and retain practical knowledge.” (p. 155)

An important caution is that ownership can work against depth of implementation. People have a natural tendency to simplify or interpret a new program to be like what they are already doing (Fuhrman et al., 2001), or to think they are doing what the program intends when they may not be. Feedback on practice, collaborative examination of video examples, and reviewing student work are ways to guide local ownership and learning and help ensure appropriate depth of implementation (see also Cannata, 2017).