We are still living in the shadows of COVID-19, the ongoing manifestations of anti-Black racism, and policy efforts to remove truth telling about America’s history in schools. Despite these efforts to undermine racial-justice work, many school districts are continuing to prioritize equity and anti-racism. Yet, many of these same districts struggle with finding a way to organize the multiple aspects of their work and to strategically weather the racist and political winds that are constantly blowing.
As districts throughout the country accelerate their hiring of P-12 chief equity officers and other equity positions, it’s important that districts and their equity leaders develop a theory of change that will anchor and guide their work.
Without a theory of change—the explanation of how a course of action will lead to a specific change—districts can run the risk of having their racial-justice and equity work become disorganized, shallow, and performative.
Leaders across a variety of fields use theories of change to guide collaborative planning, strategic decisionmaking, actions, and critical reflection among a diverse group of stakeholders. These theories of change, typically written as IF, THEN statements, clarify essential indicators, intermediate steps, and various paths that, for example, racial-justice change can take. Importantly, they start by acknowledging context—the racial, historical, and political.
A district’s theory of change might be: If we center the perspectives, decisions, and lived experiences of Black youth, adults, and communities, then we will create more authentic, equity-centered, and racially affirming partnerships with families.
Even though equity, anti-racism, and racial-justice efforts have accelerated in some districts, research that I have conducted with Ann Ishimaru of the University of Washington and Decoteau Irby of the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that only a small number of district-level equity leaders have a theory of change. In fact, in early 2022, at a convening of 40 district-level equity officers, only one of the leaders had a theory of change to guide their work.
That’s a missed opportunity.
Here are three positive outcomes that equity leaders can achieve by developing a theory of change:
1. Generate racially-just north stars.
School districts often frame their work around quantifiable outcomes, such as test scores or graduation rates. While measurable goals are important, they are not robust enough to radically and fundamentally remake schools into places of racial justice. Instead, schools must have what scholar and author Bettina Love refers to as “north stars” (based on how enslaved African Americans used the stars to guide their journeys toward freedom in the days of chattel slavery).
When school districts sit down to articulate the theory of change behind equity efforts, they can create these north stars. Leaders should start by collaborating with Black and other racially minoritized youth, families, and communities to reimagine the multitude of possibilities.
To do so, district leadership should grapple with questions like:
- How might our school district look, feel, be experienced, and sound when racial justice, radical love for Black life, and anti-oppression is an everyday reality?
- How might we know when racial justice is embedded throughout everything that we do in our district?
As districts grapple with these and other questions, then they can use their north stars as mediums through which to guide equity-based decisions, approaches, policies, and practices.
2. Foster solidarity with Black youth and families.
There are many different fronts for equity work, which can create both wonderful opportunities and incoherence. To help bring clear alignment, a theory of change will name and invite people to grapple with racist assumptions, status quo thinking, and white-supremacist organizational norms, as well as race-evasive practices. I define race evasive as diversity initiatives that fail to confront racism or take a “race neutral” approach that fails to acknowledge the influence of race on education policies like curriculum and hiring.
Equity directors and other members of district leadership must work honestly through these dynamics to include Black youth and families as key decisionmakers.
Of course, everyone in the district will not always be in solidarity with racial-justice work. That is a reality but should not stall your work. We must foster solidarity with Black youth and families to confront racism because school districts in the United States are founded on, and often continue to perpetuate, settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and systemic racism. But it is crucial for the people who are doing this work to have collective solidarity.
3. Dismantle and rebuild systems.
One of my favorite quotes from historian Robin D.G. Kelley is, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.” Although a theory of change will help districts clarify the root causes of problems such as anti-Blackness and structural racism that need to be dismantled, it will equally importantly bring people back to the question, “What are we building?” While a lot of justice work can be consumed with putting out fires and navigating racist systems, we have to keep building racially-just systems as we work to dismantle the status quo. It’s imperative that we build racially just systems in professional learning, assessments, teaching and learning, hiring, family engagement, and how students and teachers are assigned to specific programs.
Racial-just work in districts is not easy. But with a theory of change, district equity leaders can feel more prepared and ready to navigate their work more strategically.