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Scaling is the New Black

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | March 3, 2020

I recently had the opportunity to welcome several hundred of the field's experts to the annual peer review meetings for the Research Center's grant applications. At that meeting, I talked about the importance of SEER principles. I thought I would share with you current IES thinking about one of them: scaling.

If we were to extract the key components of our Congressional mission as laid out in ESRA, our authorizing legislation, we would probably get to a statement that looks something like this:

  • Getting the most effective interventions we can afford that improve outcomes that matter in front of as many learners as possible.

Scaling, which is getting in front of increasing numbers of learners, has many dimensions to it. Affordability is one of them, which leads to the IES commitment to cost and cost-effectiveness analysis of the interventions our grantees develop and study. I know that doing this cost work has been a challenge to the research community—a challenge that we are working to address.

Similar to how IES expanded the field's capacity to conduct RCTs, IES will invest in training and supporting materials to support the field's capacity to do essential work on cost and cost effectiveness. We hope to have the first document available around the same time we release the next round of RFAs and we are considering how best to provide other training and technical assistance resources.

Dissemination of knowledge is another dimension of scaling. To have impact, more people need to use the results of our research. A strong dissemination plan is required as part of all IES proposals—and IES will continue to emphasize this requirement. Of course, we want our grantees to publish in peer-reviewed journals—but while that is important for quality control (and for getting tenure), we cannot pin our dissemination hopes on journals, not when we have millions of learners in need of better education and when we are investing millions upon millions of dollars of taxpayer money. We need to explore many avenues for disseminating what we are learning so that our findings are usable, useful, and used.

Partnering with practitioners in the conduct of research is critical to any effort that eventually hopes to scale. In my recent blog posting about research practice partnerships, I suggested several different ways that researchers and practitioners can work together. We must explore new and potentially novel models of partnerships as a means of scaling our work.

While some of our PIs have experience with scaling up, most do not. While these skills are often taught in business programs, many education researchers have backgrounds in psychology, sociology, or other social sciences. Transitioning from a research environment to the open market is not in the wheelhouse of most researchers. Once projects are moving up IES research stages to efficacy, effectiveness, or replication, research teams should include members who have had previous success in scaling up interventions.

While there is a strong bias against for-profit motives in education, commercialization is one of the best ways to align incentives to encourage scaling up. We need to build links between entrepreneurs and researchers so that our tested products can get support for scaling up—and so that entrepreneurs have strong evidence before they bring education interventions and products to schools, classrooms, and learners.

We need to build on programs such as our Small Business Innovation Research awards to increase the chances of scaling. Likewise, we need to create better partnerships with tech companies and social/venture capitalists to increase the number of learners that are exposed to interventions that work.

There are some examples of what works. Ed Metz from NCER has begun a series of interviews with IES-funded researchers who have managed to scale their products. His interview with Barbara Foorman contains many exemplars of a successful scaling up process, going from ideas to rigorous testing to commercialization. We need more of this kind of work if we are going to fulfill our mission as an applied science agency: getting the most effective interventions we can afford that improve outcomes that matter in front of as many learners as possible.

As always, feel free to write me at