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Theory of Change and Common Core Standards

To prepare educators for the implementation of Common Core State Standards, state departments of education and school systems are launching efforts to promote the changes that need to be made. Underneath their efforts are either explicit or implicit theories of change driving their decisions.

A theory of change includes three elements. The first two are planned actions, selected after the study and application of research on large-scale change, curriculum implementation, and change in practice, sequenced to accomplish the intended outcomes. The third element is the set of assumptions that underpin the selection and sequence of the planned actions. These assumptions explain the rationale for the planned and sequenced actions to enact change.

For example, many state departments of education developed crosswalks between existing curriculum and Common Core standards. Those that did likely assumed that the crosswalk eases the transition between what exists and what's new. Other states chose to emphasize the difference between Common Core and existing standards, based on the assumption that emphasizing the differences enhances understanding of the change in student learning and instruction embedded in Common Core.

Assumptions about professional learning vary as well. Some states and districts turn to long-standing practices in professional learning as they plan the necessary learning for educators. The assumption is that existing practices build sufficient foundational knowledge to support implementation of Common Core standards. Some states and districts are using approaches to professional learning that include training cadres of leaders, facilitators, or trainers to disseminate information, develop practice, and broaden support. An assumption driving this action is that bringing the standards to, as one state DOE person described it, 800,000 students, 2,200 schools, and 25,000 educators, requires more hands on deck. Another assumption is that moving the support closer to the point of practice increases personalization and meaningfulness of the support.

Too few states and districts are thinking about what lies beyond the initial dissemination of fundamental knowledge. To make substantive changes in teaching and learning, professional learning must be a continuous process sustained over a period of time that engages educators in learning from experts and with and from one another.

State departments of education and school districts must consider a different set of assumptions and practices about professional learning. The research-based Standards for Professional Learning provide a solid foundation upon which to base decisions about professional development for Common Core. If the standards become the set of assumptions that drive actions to implement Common Core, professional learning will be transformed to model what teaching and learning will look like in classrooms.

Many districts and state departments of education are approaching the impending changes and the essential professional learning required to achieve full implementation of Common Core with deliberate planning and attention to long-term support. Achieving the necessary changes to realize the promise of Common Core requires explicit and publicly communicated theories of change based on clearly articulated assumptions. With a solid theory of in place, state departments of education and school districts are far more likely to plan and enact intentional, purposeful, and coherent efforts to implement Common Core standards and to prepare all students to be college- and career-ready.

Joellen Killion
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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