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Scaling Up Is Hard to Do

School innovations deserve a balance of skepticism, enthusiasm,
and tougher scrutiny that weighs all costs and benefits

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Ben Levin, (414)-978-1157;

URL for this press release:


BOULDER, CO (March 14, 2013) – When first conceived, innovations often exude an exciting, transformative potential. Perhaps they can expand, or perhaps they will teach new practices to traditional public schools. Yet, even assuming that the innovations are beneficial, there is a second problem: scaling them up beyond service within a limited context has proven very difficult, according to a new, in-depth examination of the question.

What Does It Take to Scale Up Innovations? was written by Ben Levin, a professor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Levin’s policy brief is published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Moving an innovation from a few schools to a great many, so it can have a regional or national impact, is very challenging,” Levin observes.

Professor Levin is a former deputy minister of education for the Province of Ontario and previously held the post of deputy minister of advanced education and deputy minister of education, training and youth for the Province of Manitoba.

In the new brief, he examines three U.S. education organizations frequently cited as sources of important innovation: Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), and the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has already spawned the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods program.

Levin concludes that many innovations “appear to have significant additional costs” that may make them hard to replicate without significant additional resources. Examples include the large number of additional services offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone or the longer day and year that KIPP schools require.

Just as significant are the “non-financial challenges, such as being able to find enough highly skilled people,” Levin adds. And these challenges “often are underestimated in discussions of scaling.”

In addition to costs and human capacity, Levin employs three other criteria to consider the challenges of scaling innovation up to larger student populations: tools and infrastructure, political support, and external or non-school factors.

He also points out that an innovation popular in one setting doesn’t necessary translate effectively into a system-wide solution. Education policymakers, he writes, need to avoid “either excessive enthusiasm or excessive skepticism,” and should opt instead for a reasoned approach.

Levin concludes with three recommendations for educators and policymakers:

  • Avoid categorical claims that small-scale innovations are solutions to large-scale education problems; cultivate instead an attitude that sees them as promising ideas that require more study before they are adopted;
  • Provide  promising innovations with rigorous analysis conducted by “independent and neutral parties,” examining both their costs and their benefits; and
  • Provide full and open access to data on the costs and outcomes of innovations.

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 web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (