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Volume XV, Number 1, Spring 2010
Issue Topic: Scaling Impact
Erin Harris and Priscilla Little of Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) discuss how HFRP used a multidimensional concept of scale to evaluate The Atlantic Philanthropies’ Integrated Learning Cluster strategy.
The Atlantic Philanthropies developed its Integrated Learning Cluster (ILC) strategy as a multiyear national effort to keep disadvantaged youth ages 8 to 16 engaged in learning during out-of-school time (OST) hours. Recognizing that schools alone cannot meet the learning needs of our children, the strategy was based on the belief that extra support provided beyond the school day helps to strengthen academic skills and increase emotional intelligence. To achieve these goals, Atlantic invested in a range of nonschool supports—grants for direct service, infrastructure, and advocacy efforts.
At the heart of the ILC strategy was the need to bring the OST arena to scale to better serve disadvantaged children. But what does “scale” really mean? Traditional definitions focus on expanding the number of people served through replication or adaptation of existing models and reform efforts. The ILC strategy, however, applied a notion of scale that moves beyond this definition to encompass a broader understanding, as defined by Cynthia Coburn.1 Her operationalization of scale has four components: spread, depth, sustainability, and shift in reform ownership.
As part of the evaluation of Atlantic’s ILC strategy, Harvard Family Research Project used Coburn’s definition to help identify strategic opportunities in Atlantic’s investments that could enhance these four components of scale, thereby achieving the goals of the ILC strategy. For example, by applying this scaling framing to the ILC grantees, we discovered that advocacy is a key component in the scaling process and was used by most Atlantic grantees whether or not they were funded to do so. As a result, HFRP recommended that Atlantic consider incorporating advocacy investments across all of their funding strands (rather than only a subset). We discuss the components and their application to the evaluation of the ILC strategy below.
Spread is the central notion of scale as traditionally defined—the idea that an effort will expand to increase the number of programs and people served. In Coburn’s definition, spread extends beyond merely “upping the numbers” to include the spread of ideas, beliefs, values, and principles that support the effort being brought to scale. Atlantic invested not only in organizations that can expand their reach, but also in resources that help introduce evidence-based, best-practice information into the national dialogue in order to build public and policy support for OST programs.
Depth refers to the nature and quality of change. According to Coburn, to be “at scale,” reform efforts must effect deep and consequential change at the practice level.2 Atlantic’s investment strategy devoted significant resources to OST program models that had already achieved some “early wins” in their efforts to impact practice. Further, scaling quality programs (i.e., those that have undergone rigorous evaluation, have prevalent quality standards, use strategic business plans to guide their growth, and are committed to reducing barriers to program participation) was a critical part of Atlantic’s overall strategy.
Sustainability refers to the idea that scale has meaning over time. As Coburn suggests, “the distribution and adoption of an innovation are only significant if its use can be sustained.”3 Atlantic’s ILC investments, particularly in advocacy funding, were intended to promote and sustain high-quality OST experiences for disadvantaged youth by building awareness of and support for policies that increase federal and state funding for effective OST programs. Atlantic’s early investments in organizational development and capacity building increased the likelihood that ILC grantees would continue to be active participants in the OST infrastructure long after Atlantic’s investments had ceased. Further, most ILC grantees had multiple sources of private and corporate sponsorship, enabling them to leverage Atlantic’s resources to garner additional support.
Shift in reform ownership, as Coburn notes, refers to shifting authority and knowledge from external actors to those who are either implementing reform or building the capacity to do so. In the case of ILC investments, these external actors were national-level OST advocacy organizations that pushed for policies to improve OST program access and quality. To ensure the success of these policies, all OST stakeholders must be on board with and take ownership of these efforts at the ground level. As noted above, many ILC grantees demonstrated this ownership by implementing policy advocacy strategies and activities whether or not they were funded to do so. This shift came about as grantees realized that advocacy efforts were necessary to achieve their goals and that they needed to become active advocates themselves rather than rely solely on others to advocate for robust OST policies. If this component of scale continues to progress among ILC grantees, then over time more grantees will internalize advocacy functions as “part of doing business,” and the national advocacy organizations will build the capacity of other local-level OST programs to follow suit.
Coburn’s broadened vision of scale allowed for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Atlantic’s ILC strategy investments. Although the framework was initially developed for education reform, the concepts have applications across a range of fields and types of efforts.
Project Manager, Harvard Family Research Project
Associate Director, Harvard Family Research Project
1. Coburn, C. (2003). Rethinking scale: Moving beyond numbers to deep and lasting change. Educational Researcher, 32(6), 3–12.
2. Ibid., p. 4.
3. Ibid., p. 6.