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Guest blog: Theory of action

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Welcome to the guest blogger section of the Notebook blog.

This week's post comes from James H. Lytle, professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education (GSE).


In understanding the administration of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the approaches she has taken to school reform in Philadelphia, it helps to know about the “theory” that explains how she and her leadership team have approached the challenges presented by the District.

Dr. Ackerman is a graduate of Harvard’s School of Education and last summer took her leadership team to Harvard to be trained in school district management, and more particularly the PELP Coherence Framework (PELP is the Public Education Leadership Project). The PELP website explains that:

The components of the framework include: Instructional Core, Strategy, Stakeholders, Culture, Structure, Systems, Resources, and Environment. (For more detail, see http://www.hbs.edu/pelp/framework.html.) The central idea for PELP is that leaders “identify the key elements that support a district-wide improvement strategy“ by “bringing these elements into a coherent and integrated relationship.”

In other words, all of the pieces need to fit together.

PELP’s authors state that there are “five common managerial challenges that urban districts face as they seek to implement a strategy for improved performance.

  1. Implementing the strategy effectively across schools with different characteristics.
  2. Redesigning the organization so that it supports this strategy.
  3. Developing and managing human capital to carry out the strategy.
  4. Allocating resources in alignment with the strategy.
  5. Using performance data for decision making, organizational learning, and accountability."

[From: Childress, S., Elmore, R.F., Grossman, A.S., and Johnson, S.M. (2007). Managing school districts for high performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, p. 2]

Elsewhere they define strategy as: A coherent set of actions a district deliberately undertakes to strengthen the instructional core with the objective of raising student performance district-wide. Gaining coherence among actions at the district, school, and classroom levels will make a district’s chosen strategy more scalable and sustainable.

It is this notion of coherence that apparently underlies the Ackerman administration’s sense that it must act expeditiously and with authority in pulling together and driving forward a distressed and underperforming district. The administration’s response has been a fast-moving and complex reform agenda outlined in the superintendent’s Imagine 2014 plan.  

Listing many of the elements of the agenda, and indicating how they have been chosen helps clarify how the theory of action has put in place. This chart below lists a number of the most significant elements, then describes what the “evidence” is for each, and finally indicates the apparent source of the decision for each activity. (When the source is listed as central office, it means both the superintendent and the School Reform Commission (SRC) because the SRC has consistently voted to support all parts of the reform agenda.)

  • notebooktheoryofaction

The chart prompts a series of questions and responses which may help in understanding the implications of the District’s “theory of action.”

  • How does this theory shape the principal’s role as school leader? The teacher’s role in the classroom?
    In the School District of Philadelphia paradigm, the roles of principal and teacher are to implement central office policies and directives.

  • Who is/will be accountable? 
    As the chart indicates, most decisions affecting instructional programs, time utilization, staffing, resource utilization, and performance/accountability standards are made at the central office. Principals and school faculties are responsible for effectively implementing the strategies, and are currently the accountable parties – the ones who will be sanctioned if their schools don’t perform to standards (School Targets).

  • At what point has there been consultation with principals and/or teachers on the determination and nature of the activities?
    As the chart suggests, virtually every component of the “reform” agenda has been centrally determined.

  • What incentives and sanctions are being used to encourage implementation of the activities?
    The incentive system appears to be driven by rewards (principal bonuses) and sanctions - reconstitution, principal removal, school categorization (low-performing, in need of improvement, corrective action, Renaissance, etc. – in part dictated by NCLB), and charter school conversion.

  • Where is the thinking? the learning?
    As is evident from the chart, the “thinking,” that determines organizational strategy and operational conditions is centralized at an executive and legislative level (local, state, and federal). The effect is to reduce professional judgment and diminish capacity and adaptability at the school level, that is, the level where the organizational services are provided.

  • What’s missing in the PELP framework? Are there blind spots?
    The most obvious shortcoming is that the framework does not take into account “emotional intelligence” and “relational trust,” two research-based notions that have a direct relationship to successful educational reform. A simple explanation would be that effective leaders, whether in central office or schools, need to be aware of their own emotions and of how their behavior affects those around them, and build trust with teachers, students, and parents.

  • What outcomes does the District’s “theory of action” foretell? Does the research on effective schools, school improvement, and school change support the approach being taken?
    A direct answer would be no. Deficit-framed, high stakes accountability, remedial approaches, with significant sanctions and minimal rewards, do not work for the long-term, either in schools or the corporate sector. They erode the trust and willingness-to-risk which behavior change requires, foster low expectations, limit adaptation at the school-site level, and portend long-term morale problems, including high employee turnover, and declining organizational performance.


The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post. We're just launching this feature so feedback and suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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