Navigating the Every Student Succeeds Act: Empowerment—Build Your Theory of Action

Navigating Essa Empowerment Build Your Theory Of Action Thumb

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) empowers educators to design interventions that address the needs of the “whole student” with a “well-rounded education.” The term “evidenced-based” appears 58 times throughout ESSA. This term is used to govern the use of funds and selection of activities, strategy or interventions throughout all aspects of the law. Where do you begin to make the right decision to meet the needs of every student?

First Step: Conduct a Needs Assessment

ESSA defines four levels of evidence-based requirements that will be explored in more depth in our next ESSA blog. I strongly urge each administrator to conduct a needs assessment and process for engaging stakeholders (both in and out of the school) incorporating evidenced-based factors that influence school performance to identify root causes. Investigate some of the following national databases and resources to identify evidence-based strategies and interventions for school improvement:

Carefully analyze the data collected to define the root cause of lower than expected student achievement.

Second Step: Create a Theory of Action

Leaders must be able to articulate the problem or situation impacting learning for students. A good theory of action is especially important when using studies that fall under the “demonstrates a rationale” level of evidence. I advise leaders to consider problems of practice, which focus on what educators throughout the system do, day to day, and how they construct learning opportunities that ultimately contribute to student achievement, social-emotional development, and student engagement. There is no shortage of problems in schools. Which problems are most pressing? What strategies or intervention will solve the problem? A strong theory of action is intended to change behaviors and belief systems and chart a clear strategy for improvement. A theory of action:

  • Includes an understanding of what is happening with your students
  • Reviews the theory and actual practices within the school and classroom
  • Takes into consideration the principal’s role as an instructional leader
  • Identifies strategies and action steps necessary to improve instructional design and student achievement
  • Is grounded in research or evidenced-based practices
  • Offers significant probability for increasing achievement and equity

Third Step: Finalizing Your Theory of Action

Once you have a first draft of your Theory of Action, engage stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, administrators) and probe deeper into what needs to change. Ask the following questions:

  • What aspects of student learning do we need to work on?
  • What aspects of the instructional design do we need to work on to improve student success?
  • What do teachers need to do differently?
  • What type of support do teachers need to make the changes identified?
  • What aspects of principal leadership do we need to change?
  • What type of support do principals need to make the identified changes?
  • Why are we prioritizing these strategies or interventions?
  • What kind of evidence is necessary to document the impact of the changes?
  • How will we communicate the theory of action? To whom?
  • What process will we put in place to monitor progress, and/or adjust the theory of action as necessary?

Final Step: Set Up Progress Monitoring of Your Theory of Action

To meet the expectations of ESSA and to document the impact of your decisions and how they increase student achievement, you must identify how the Theory of Action will be evaluated. Design your evaluation plan prior to implementing your intervention. Identify the outcomes you wish to achieve, monitor your implementation plan, collect data, and conduct a thoughtful analysis to determine if it worked. The International Center for Leadership in Education has resources and tools to help you conduct your needs assessment, including the opportunity to view classroom videos and apply rubrics aligned to the instructional shifts necessary to achieve college and career academic standards. The Rigor and Relevance rubrics provide a common definition for rigor, relevance, and student engagement. The Daggett System for Effective Instruction rubrics provides an opportunity to examine your organizational and instructional leadership elements and successful teaching.


Want to learn more about strategies to effectively address district and school accountability indicators in ESSA? Join Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of ICLE—a division of HMH—for a one-day institute in Albany, New York, on October 9, 2019. Register here.

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