Chapter Nine

Implementation I


There has been no shortage of successful experiments with educational innovation. However, many attempts that work well in limited pilot projects have fallen flat when attempts have been made to implement them on larger scales.113

In the introduction to this document, for example, we mentioned the disappointing implementation outcomes from the 1967 Plowden Report recommendations for primary education in England.114 In 1987, author Bridget Plowden remarked that the problem was not in the vision, so much as in many aspects of its implementation.115 Advice for implementation could be found in the report, Plowden notes, but was not visible enough. She acknowledged, for instance, the Report’s recommendation that teachers ‘must select those of our suggestions which their knowledge and skill enable them to put into practice in the circumstances of their own schools’ was “not emphasized sufficiently.” The phrase “in the circumstances of their own schools” illustrates the problem with reforms that are not system-wide.

Adrianna Kezar has provided a coherent analysis of literature on scaling up change in an educational context. She points out that we do not lack good ideas for improving instruction, but have innumerable examples of good ideas failing to “take” at large scales. She points out that scaling changes to K-12 education is particularly problematic.116

Kezar identifies two main problems. The first is that implementation models have largely ignored knowledge and understanding of successful programs for scaling change. The second is that, where they do adopt models for scaling, these are generally dated approaches that are not well aligned with the particular needs of education systems. They might, for instance, be borrowed from the international development literature.

In order not to fall into the same trap, we will in the next chapter attempt to use wisdom gained from analysis of successful implementations of wide-scale change in secondary education in order to lay out an exemplar pathway for implementation of the changes we are recommending. In this chapter, however, we will focus on the broader issues of successful scaling, sustainable change and the importance of global benefit being gained from any innovation program.

Three Secrets of Successful Scaling

Local Input

Reform plans can be developed internally by teachers and administrators in a school or externally by a developer such as a Ministry of Education. Both approaches have been associated with successful implementation in specific schools.117

There is some evidence that externally developed reforms are easier and less costly to implement and involve fewer risks.118 The advantage of this is that the easier and less costly it is to implement a design, the more likely it is that reform will disseminate across large numbers of schools or classrooms. However, imposition of an external design has been associated with changes that do not last.119

Kezar notes that innovations that scale successfully alter the norms of teachers and other learning professionals, breaking their existing habits. Simply imposing change on their practices is not enough to alter established norms. In order to achieve lasting change, a program must be adjusted to suit the environment where it will be applied. That must be done in collaboration with the local stakeholders so that they are motivated to break their own, self-diagnosed unproductive habits.

There are two reasons for this. First, school reform efforts are much more successful when they are tailored to fit the particular school setting. It is challenging, for example, to impose innovations on schools in rural areas when they have been trialed exclusively in urban schools. An innovation should reflect needs that have been acknowledged locally. As researcher Andy Hargreaves has put it, consensus on the best way forward is “best secured not through the sole medium of written administrative texts, but through communities of people within and across schools who create policies, talk about them, process them, inquire into them, and reformulate them, bearing in mind the circumstances and the children they know best.”120

The second issue is that this provides much better motivation for all involved. Teacher support is crucial for the success of any reform. If teachers do not support the reform, a situation that often arises if the district or principal has imposed it on them, they will often resist it or half-heartedly implement it, trusting from experience that the principal or district staff will eventually shift their attention elsewhere.121

Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us lays out three motivators: being handed responsibility for the task, becoming better at something that matters to you and contributing to a cause greater and more enduring than yourself. For this reason, adaptation should be a flexible process that is negotiated between champions of change and the educators, parents, students and communities who will ultimately determine its success. A vital part of this process is for teachers, parents and caregivers, and students to be involved in design and implementation of change.

Global Applicability Through Inclusive Reforms

If a reform is to be scaled beyond a single institution, it must give a sense of progress to a community, not just for the learners within that institution. In other words, the changes must work for everyone in the community. Many strategies have improved the learning outcomes for 50–60% of students in a given jurisdiction. This is not our aim. We want to improve the outcomes for all students.

A recent OECD report indicates that broad-based change helps to reduce socioeconomic disparities. A commitment to equity within an education system can greatly diminish the correlation between family income and educational outcomes. There is also evidence that whole-school reform is more effective at improving instructional practice than reforms targeting a particular segment of the student population, a specific part of the curriculum, or only a few classrooms in a school.122

Schools implementing wholesale changes tend to experience greater improvements in instructional practice and in student achievement than schools targeting change to only a segment of the student population.123 In describing the process of scaling up school reform in California, Honig argued that comprehensive, school wide reforms have a greater influence on classroom practice than do piecemeal efforts.124 It seems worth pointing out that Finland’s performance has been especially notable for its remarkable consistency across schools. There is little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap between the top and bottom-achieving students in any individual school is small. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socioeconomic status. We note that the much-lauded Finnish reforms were nationwide and wholesale, rather than targeted at particular groups.

When innovations are designed, the following questions should be considered:

  • Do the proposed changes help learners of all abilities and motivations, including the most advanced learners and those with unique requirements for physically or cognitively accessing education?
  • Is it accessible to learners of all socioeconomic groups in the local context?
  • Are the required resources available to all of this jurisdiction’s learners? Is the take-up of the innovation likely to be equally advantageous to people of either gender?

If the answer to these questions is yes, there is reason for hope that the measures will be scalable.

Sustainability Through Support Networks

Large-scale changes cannot be considered successfully implemented unless they are able to survive evolution of the system and remain useful in a changing world. A lack of sustainability was another shortcoming of the Plowden program, for example, a “rapid increase in the birth rate […] meant a vast increase in the numbers of teachers needed,” and “we could not in our comments on science envisage the use of computers.”125

Sustainability is perhaps the hardest criterion to meet, since it requires both a degree of foresight and luck. However, change is not unforeseeable, and the strongest defense against obsolescence in the face of change is the establishing of a robust communications network for stakeholders. Within this network, good practice should be openly and publicly debated on a regular basis. Individuals or groups implementing reforms should be connected to others involved in similar efforts where they can share practices – both successes and failures – and create learning communities where educators deliberate on education and flag up impending change and likely future requirements for learning. Sustainability is often improved by a system of accountability that allows for discussion of successes, disappointments and suggestions for future improvement while retaining focus on implementing change rather than finding excuses for failure.

The network should also channel the implementing institution’s continuing support for those implementing the change on the ground, and provide a means for recognition and reward of achievements. Fullan has suggested that the role of a reform seeking principal should include actively seeking out new alliances with external organizations, such as reform networks and potential funders to help facilitate this.126

There are several examples of networks supporting change in learning practices: the work of Collaborative Impact and Todos Pela Educação would provide a good starting point.127 Collaborative Impact is a change brokering organization. It runs the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning project, which is connecting various stakeholders in education in order to enable them to work better together towards providing enhanced teaching and learning opportunities. Todos Pela Educação (TDE) is an NGO that pulls together educators, students, entrepreneurs and administrators to work towards giving all Brazilian children access to a quality basic education. By creating strong links between stakeholders such as government education departments and those managing education resources in schools and communities, and bringing external expertise and resources where needed, TPE is creating the opportunity for education provision to reach those it would never otherwise have reached.

Having laid out the general considerations for implementing scalable, globally applicable and sustainable change in education, we will now go on to look at specific paths forward.


113. Fullan, M, 2009. “Large-Scale Reform Comes of Age,” Journal of Educational Change, February 2009

114. Central Advisory Council for Education, 1967. “Children and their Primary Schools” (‘The Plowden Report’), London: HMSO .

115. Plowden, B, 1987. “’Plowden’ Twenty Years On.”

116. Kezar, A, 2012. “The Path to Pedagogical Reform in the Sciences: Engaging Mutual Adaptation and Social Movement Models of Change.” Liberal Education,
Winter 2012, Vol. 98, No. 1.

117. Glennan, T et al, 2004. “Expanding The Reach of Education Reforms: Perspectives from Leaders in the Scale-up of Education Interventions,” RAND Education.

118. Ibid.

119. Cody, A, 2013. “Is ‘Scalable’ a Code Word for Top-Down Reform?.”

120. Hargreaves, A. “Hargreaves on Education Policy.”

121. Datnow, A et al, 2002. Extending Educational Reform: From One School to Many. London & New York, 2002. Routledge/Falmer.

122. OECD, 2009. “PIS A 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes Volume 2.”

123. Stringfield, S et al, 1997. “Urban and Suburban/Rural Special Strategies for Educating Disadvantaged Children: Findings and Policy Implications of a
Longitudinal Study.”

124. Honig, M, 1994. “Bridging the School-to-Work Divide.”

125. Plowden, B, 1987. “’Plowden’ Twenty Years On.” 

126. Anchan, J, 2002. Change Forces in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: Education in Transition. Routledge Falmer. London & New York.

127. Collaborative Impact; Todos Pela Educacao.

“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”

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