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The Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), through the Nebraska School Improvement Research Partnership, is collaborating with REL Central to develop a statewide system that provides schools in need of improvement with support for implementing a continuous school improvement process through evidence-based programs and practices that improve school outcomes. Schools designated as “needs improvement” through the state’s accountability system often struggle with low test-scores, chronic absenteeism, low graduation rates, and use of data, among other areas. To develop a system that supports these schools, NDE staff members needed to understand the problems and needs schools experience during the school improvement process and to conceptualize the actions NDE could take to respond to them. To do this, NDE staff, in partnership with REL Central, developed the components of a theory of action (TOA) to help guide them.

Defining the Problems

A TOA conceptualizes the activities needed to solve problems and the expected outcomes of those activities.

Sample section of worksheet used by NDE to determine problem statements
Sample section of worksheet used by NDE to determine problem statements.

To determine the problems the TOA would address, NDE staff first looked to the needs and challenges of three schools designated as needing the most improvement through the state accountability system. Even though, these three “priority schools” had already received several supports that the NDE would like to implement statewide through the framework of support, the schools experienced some challenges implementing those supports as well as unaddressed needs. For example, the schools needed enhanced access to tools and resources. Additionally, they needed to develop more trust between school staff, administrators, and support staff to continue the hard work of improving student learning. Reviewing the challenges that the priority schools faced in accessing and using NDE supports provided an indication of what a statewide framework of support would need to address.

REL Central and NDE worked together to use the challenges and needs of priority schools to develop problem statements, which NDE staff modified, added to, and ultimately selected as the key challenges NDE would address in the TOA.

Solutions and Outcomes

Once NDE staff agreed on the list of problem statements the TOA would address, REL Central provided materials to help them identify activities to address those statements, create resulting short-term and intermediate-term outcomes, and align those with the long-term outcomes set by the state board of education.

Sample Problem statement, action, and corresponding outcomes.
Sample problem statement, action, and corresponding outcomes.

TOA activities ranged from strategies for providing support to schools to the provision of tools and resources schools can use for school improvement, with the TOA’s outcomes reflecting the anticipated stages of change in route to the long-term outcomes.

For example, NDE staff addressed the problem statement “Educators often lack access to standards-aligned, evidence-based programs and practices for instruction” by pairing it with an activity that would provide “schools with a repository of standards-aligned, evidence-based programs and practices for school improvement.” NDE staff believe this solution will lead to the short-term outcome of teachers being able to access and implement appropriate instructional materials and practices based on what a student can do with and without help. They further expect the intermediate outcome of this access to improve teachers’ capacity to use standards-aligned, evidence-based programs and practices through teacher mentoring programs and evaluation feedback. Finally, NDE staff worked to ensure all of the activities and outcomes they chose would lead to the Nebraska Board of Education’s long-term outcome of “students are supported by qualified/credentialed, effective teachers and leaders throughout their learning experiences.”

Next Steps

After completing the TOA, NDE in partnership with REL Central, will implement it as a conceptual blueprint to guide the development of a framework of support. The framework will operationalize the TOA by delineating the areas of needed school support and the mechanisms to deliver trainings, ongoing technical support, and resources provided by NDE, education services units, and external partners. This framework will lead to a system of support for all schools needing improvement.

Stephanie Wilkerson, the REL Central researcher leading the project, spoke to the importance of the work NDE is doing to improve student outcomes.

“It’s been deeply rewarding to work with the dedicated staff at NDE as they implement a statewide system that promotes accountability and continuous school improvement through the use of research and evidence-based practices,” said Wilkerson. “And we’re excited to continue to collaborate with our NDE partners as they build a framework to support schools needing improvement across the state.”

Learn more about the Nebraska School Improvement Research Partnership.

Discover other REL Central partnerships and projects.