Thinking Big about Student Success

Published jul. 25, 2013

At JFF, with our vision of doubling the number of low-income youth and adults who attain postsecondary credentials by 2020, we are very much aware of the importance of scaling up new approaches that effectively promote student success. We are trying to tackle large-scale problems, and to do so we need to seek out large-scale solutions. But what does it mean to take educational innovation to scale? What does the process look like?

Over the past year, JFF has been investigating these questions, with a focus on community colleges; our latest publication, Thinking Big, is the result. We looked at research, considered our own experiences with taking initiatives to scale, and then conducted a series of interviews with practitioners and thought leaders. Through this process, we realized that while the innovations, contexts, and timelines varied across the examples we studied, there are some universal aspects of the process. We drew on those aspects to develop a framework for understanding how scaling happens, from the planning stage all the way to sustaining. We also noticed a lot of common themes across the stories. Here’s some of what we learned:

  1. You have to think and work at scale from the beginning.
  2. Scale and systems change are interconnected and interdependent.
  3. Communication is the connective tissue of any scaling effort.
  4. To achieve scale, you have to balance fidelity to a particular model with local adaptation to different contexts.
  5. Partnerships and relationships are crucial to achieving scale.
  6. Scaling efforts require resources and the agility to maintain them over time.
  7. Data are invaluable at all stages of scaling up.
  8. Sustaining innovation is a dynamic condition, requiring ongoing attention and engagement.
  9. Getting to scale isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

These lessons are just a piece of the big picture of what it means to get to scale—the full publication includes much more detail on the cases studied, our scaling framework, and the ways that states and colleges can use this information to inform their own scaling efforts. And we have still only scratched the surface – now, we are looking to the field to be part of the conversation. What is your experience with getting to scale? What works? What doesn’t? What are your lessons learned?

Rachel Pleasants McDonnell, senior project manager in JFF’s Building Economic Opportunity, is a co-author of Thinking Big: A Framework for States on Scaling Up Community College Innovation. The report and executive summary are available for download here.