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Connell & Klem - Theory of Change & Ed Reform

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JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSULTATION, 11(1), 93120 Copyright 2000, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

You Can Get There From Here: Using a Theory of Change Approach to Plan Urban Education ReformJames P. Connell and Adena M. KlemThe Institute for Research and Reform in Education

This article presents a theory of change approach to planning educational reform initiatives with a focus on district level efforts. Using examples from ongoing consulting work with urban school districts, we walk through steps in a planning process that can yield a theory of change that meets 4 criteria: plausible, doable, testable, and meaningful. The benefits of this planning approach for evaluation and implementation of district level educational reform are also discussed. We conclude with implications of this approach for educational and psychological consultants working with educational reform initiatives.

Every urban school district in America has had some form of district-wide reform plan, and most have had multiple plans over the past decade. In light of this extraordinary effort by many talented people, why do we not see more examples of meaningful, district-wide improvement in student performance? First and foremost, because it is really hard to do. The inherent complexity of system change, the cyclical nature of public attention to urban education, and the divisive factors of race and class that plague local and national consideration of urban issues make planning and implementing meaningful change in urban schools an awesome challenge. In our work as consultants to urban education reform initiatives, we have found the theory of change approach1 (Connell & Kubisch, 1998) toCorrespondence should be addressed to James P. Connell, Institute for Research and Reform in Education, 710 Glengarry Road, Philadelphia, PA 19118. 1 The description and rationale of the approach draws on our earlier work (Connell & Klem, 1996), and shares some key elements with other planning and evaluation approaches as well.



planning these initiatives helpful in three ways. The approach helps make plans for urban education more sensiblemore grounded in current research, in demonstrated best practice, and in local experience. It builds a local knowledge base and collective change ethic that makes implementation of the reform more likely. And, finally, this approach makes evaluation of these plans more rigorous, timely, and useful. This article describes the theory of change approach to planning educational reform. It is organized into three sections: (a) an overview of the approach as it is being applied to planning complex community-based initiatives; (b) the steps involved in a theory of change planning process and examples of its products; and (c) a summary of this approachs challenges, benefits, and implications for educational and psychological consultants working in diverse educational settings. Throughout this article, our ongoing work in one urban school district2 is used as a case example to illustrate how the approach works. OVERVIEW OF THE THEORY OF CHANGE APPROACH Just what is a theory of change? Weiss (1995) defines it quite simply as a theory of how and why an initiative works. According to Connell and Kubisch (1998), the approach has several key elements, some of which are shared with other planning approaches (Argyris, 1993; Argyris & Schon, 1974; Fetterman, Kaftarian, & Wandersman, 1995; Hustedde & Score, 1995; Julian, Jones, & Deyo, 1995; Kaufman & Herman, 1991). First, a theory of change delineates the pathway of an initiative by making explicit both the outcomes of an initiative (early, intermediate, and longer term) and the action strategies that will lead to the achievement of these outcomes. Second, the quality of a theory of change is judged by four explicit criteria: how plausible, doable, testable, and meaningful the theory of change is.Plausible means that stakeholders believe the logic of the model is correct: if we do these things, we will get the results we want and expect.

This is a small, urban district with approximately 23,000 students, over 60% of which are minority; 80% are eligible for public support of some kind. Approximately 40% of incoming freshman do not graduate from high school. In our 3 years of work with the district, there have been three superintendents, redistricting because of desegregation, and three board elections.




Doable means the human, political, and economic resources are seen as sufficient to implement the action strategies in the theory. Testable means that stakeholders believe there are credible ways to discover whether the results are as predicted. Meaningful means that stakeholders see the outcomes as important and see the magnitude of change in these outcomes being pursued as worth the effort.

Third, a theory of change is generated by moving backward from long-term goals and outcomes to the necessary and sufficient conditions (intermediate and early outcomes) for producing those long-term outcomes to action strategies needed to achieve early outcomes (see Figure 1). Fourth, this approach considers not only whether change will occur, but also how much change is expected to occur, for what populations, and in what settings and when. Fifth, it examines expectations for outcomes and activities in light of available and potential resources. Sixth, the approach encourages multiple stakeholders to contribute to articulation of the theory of change. And, seventh, the approach recognizes that the theory of change can change as it is tested over the course of the initiative. Next, we walk through the steps in applying this approach by using a case example from our own work.

BUILDING A GOOD THEORY OF CHANGE Step 1: Generate or Adopt an Initial Change Framework The planning process begins by importing an initial change framework, such as the one shown in Figure 2, which was developed by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE) for use in a project involving three urban school districts, a national technical assistance provider, and a private national funder. IRREs role was to design a process whereby these three urban districts could place the funders investment in an overarching theory of change to guide their ongoing and future reform efforts. This par-


Steps in articulating a theory of change.




ticular change framework reflects IRREs and others synthesis of research on youth and organizational development, intensive observation of successful urban schools, and developing expertise in change at the school and district levels. Key elements of this framework are discussed in more detail in IRRE (1996). The framework is presented here to illustrate the characteristics and utility of an imported change framework, not to argue for its validity in relation to other possible change frameworks. In some circumstances, the scope and/or goals of an initiative demand that local stakeholders generate their own initial change framework; for example, when there is not a credible knowledge base or broad external consensus about what the important outcomes are, or about what best practices contribute to these outcomes. In the field of education reform, however, our own and others experience suggest there are clear advantages to importing a change framework (Bodilly, 1996; Fashola & Slavin, 1997; Stringfield, et al., 1997). First, less is more in both planning and implementing change. Comprehensive reform becomes more tractable when a change framework with a few key elements can serve as a lens for examining current practices and planning future ones. Second, importing a change framework directs early discussions toward common goals and understandings of what needs to be done and away from self-protective explanations for what is currently done. Third, the imported change framework helps attach the reform agenda to a credible and testable knowledge base and detach it from particular personalities and positions. In our experience, the risks of using an imported change framework to launch the local planning process accrue when the process for engaging stakeholders in a dialogue around the change framework is not carefully thought through.To ensure that a change framework brought in from the outside achieves the credibility among local stakeholders it needs to function effectively, the process must give all stakeholders the time and support to clearly understand each element in the framework.Case example. An educational roundtable was convened by a local investment partner for anchor stakeholders (school board, superintendent and senior management, teacher association, and community leaders, including local foundation investors). This roundtable was an intensive, 2-day retreat during which the imported change framework was studied; dialogue and discussion with the change frameworks authors occurred; and stakeholders interacted with teachers, students, administrators, and parents from urban schools where the key elements of the change framework were already in place. Once the anchor stakeholders agreed that the change framework was consistent with and advanced their districts and communitys goals, these same roundtables were replicated for teacher, staff, and parent representatives



from approximately 10 schools in the first cluster scheduled to implement the reform initiative. Finally, these representatives and anchor stakeholders helped plan and implement a final set of roundtables for the full school staff and interested parents at each school site.

We next describe the initial change framework in greater detail and then clarify the steps in the planning proc

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