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By Andrew Plemmons Pratt

Whether you are creating a new program, launching a new school, or transforming an existing school, the CityBridge Incubator helps teams design and scale innovative and equity-centered education solutions. But to solve a problem, it is important to know what you are currently doing, and most importantly why. One powerful tool we use in Design Fellowship to help educators and entrepreneurs achieve this is a theory of change. For today’s promising practice, I’ll be illustrating the process of developing a theory of change through the experience of Washington Yu Ying, a Chinese-immersion elementary school in Washington, DC’s Ward 5.

So what is a theory of change and why is it important when designing solutions? A theory of change is an explanation of how the activities of a team or an organization fit together to create the intended outcomes. A theory of change connects inputs (e.g., curriculum) to outcomes (e.g., rigorous instruction).

During our Design Fellowship, CityBridge coaches help teams build their theory of change with simple tools such as sticky notes and Sharpies. When working virtually, we use a digital tool such as Google Slides or Mural. The process starts off feeling like a brainstorm around the question, “What are all the activities we do now to advance this goal?” From there, it feels more like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, trying to match inputs and outputs in the right sequence but with no image on the front of the box. While a theory of change is a product that teams create, it is also a process in which team members talk, debate, and wrestle with not just what they do but why.

The challenge Yu Ying wanted to address in Design Fellowship was how to equip their faculty to create a sense of belonging for all students. This was their long-term outcome.

Yu Ying set to work on their theory of change. They established that the race equity trainings they previously invested in were a key input. But in conversation about how this input fit together to create a sense of belonging within the school, they realized that a puzzle piece was missing. The question Yu Ying had to grapple with was, “How do we translate those trainings into classroom practice?” Their new hypothesis was that if teachers shared their personal experience with race and received professional development to connect staff learning and student experiences, they would be equipped to create culturally-responsive lessons and deepen relationships with marginalized students.

With support from the CityBridge coaches, Yu Ying went back to the drawing board to connect the pieces and answer that question. They added a new set of components, including a toolkit for designing and auditing lessons for cultural responsiveness. From there, they built a pilot to test out these new tools and ensure that they supported their goal of creating a sense of belonging.

“We do a lot of isolated things,” said Yu Ying Executive Director Maquita Alexander as she reflected on the process of building the theory of change, “but this helped us see how it all connected or how it didn’t connect.”

On its own, their theory of change did not tell them what to do, nor did it even define the problem for them. It helped Yu Ying understand the “what” and “why” of their solution and provided clarity on how to move forward on their goal. By having the conversation as a team and developing a theory of change, they were able to activate the equityXdesign principle of “make the invisible visible” by shining a light on the existing dynamics within the school that obscured what they needed to see. Stay tuned for more on equityXdesign in our future newsletters.