Over the last 15 years, I have served as superintendent in two urban New Jersey school districts. In both communities, the boards of education hired me with the directive to transform the schools by providing our students an education that is equitable to the one provided in the best schools in the country. Throughout these experiences, I oversaw significant structural and systemic changes that directly impacted student learning experiences. When asked for advice by new or aspiring leaders, I point to the importance of creating and implementing a personal theory of action to transform schools and lead students to high levels of academic success.
During my first superintendency in Elizabeth Public Schools, I had the opportunity to participate in The Broad Academy (TBA). One of my biggest takeaways from that experience was the importance of a theory of action. A theory of action provides a clear framework for developing strategic plans, identifying priorities, and setting goals. When presented as a board policy, it requires the board to recognize the framework for decision making and provides a strong foundation for the most challenging changes. The Board of Education and I had the opportunity to work on reform governance with Donald McAdams, author of What School Boards Can Do: Reform Governance for Urban Schools (2006), and we used that training to develop a district theory of action policy that guided our work.
Later, after reading Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning (City et al., 2009) and participating in an Instructional Rounds network, I applied the concept of a personal theory of action to my beliefs about leading large-scale district transformation. My personal theory of action is a statement of four beliefs that I reference to guide strategy, decisions, budgets, and programs. In addition, my personal theory of action drives me to deliver learning experiences that provide all students the opportunity to graduate high school with a career certification, a minimum of 15 college credits, or both. First, I believe that by leading with a focus on the district vision and mission, selecting the right leaders, and allocating resources directly to classrooms, we will build a successful school system. In both superintendencies, the vision and mission served as the catalyst for transforming expectations and beliefs around adult and student learning.
Second, I have identified the core values I prioritize when selecting district and school leaders. Specifically, I look to develop leaders who focus on the vision and mission, lead with a commitment to improve classroom instruction, are excellent team members, merit trust, and share my high expectations for student achievement. In both districts, we utilized the Instructional Rounds model to build the instructional knowledge and skills we expected of school leaders. Our interview process represented these values and required applicants to study a school data set, develop and present a plan for improving instruction, and demonstrate ownership of student achievement.
Third, my vision for a strong organization requires that we build an Aligned Instructional System. In Passaic Public Schools, the Board of Education adopted a policy supporting the Aligned Instructional System, providing a lens to develop the budget, write policy, and frame critical initiatives. In Passaic, this serves as a point of intersection between my personal theory of action and the theory of action policy adopted by the Board. The seven elements are:
- developing coherent curricula
- defining effective teaching
- supporting systemic adult learning
- utilizing an assessment-oriented feedback loop
- managing a comprehensive student data system
- deploying organizational interventions to support growth, and
- consistently measuring progress.
In action, we looked deeply at instruction occurring at every grade level. Some of the shifts that we made include: investing in early literacy with consistent professional development, curricula, and multi-tier interventions; significantly increasing the number of Career and Technical Education programs that were aligned to career certifications, as well as Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment college credits programs; embracing bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural education including creating an immersive bilingual program for elementary students; creating a college preparation culture using the AVID system; and pursuing a big, audacious goal to have our students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Passaic now has a group of students that are on the path to graduate with an associate’s degree, an achievement that both students and parents cherish.
Finally, my personal theory of action includes 2Qs: Quantity and Quality. This requires that time, a critical resource, is maximized to provide more cognitively challenging student learning opportunities beyond the school day and throughout the entire year. We provide enrichment, support, and credit recovery programs before and after school, on Saturdays, and during the summer. It also requires a strong understanding of what effective instruction means to every member of the organization.
For me, this leadership framework led to dramatic improvements, transforming two urban districts and preparing students to access the most competitive colleges and post-secondary opportunities. After 30 years working in public education, including The Broad Academy training, my advice to leaders is to adopt a personal theory of action to drive the success that all students deserve.