The American Rescue Plan has distributed nearly $190 billion in Covid relief funds to reopen schools safely and support the academic and social emotional needs of K-12 students in the United States. School districts and states are making quick decisions on how to spend these funds, and the options are plentiful – culturally responsive programs, formative assessment, social-emotional learning, diagnostic testing, summative testing – all that come with the promise of fixing every covid landmine. These programs can certainly be of benefit WHEN they are used in conjunction with a bigger piece of the puzzle that must be placed first… a cohesive theory of action.

One definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” To quickly grab the bright shiny object program is putting a Band-Aid on a knife wound. Major surgery needs to happen first.

A theory of action is a mindset… a belief system. It’s accepting that although learning may have not happened in the traditional way through the pandemic, learning has taken place through lived experiences and acknowledging there is value in that. Looking through this lens is the only way we can really determine what students need to learn now, what “learning loss” actually means, and what approach will have the biggest impact. It’s focusing on a belief gap rather than an achievement gap.

All systems are designed to get the results they get. The opportunity that comes with covid relief funds is disruption; getting messy in order to rebuild a system that is most effective for learners, educators and the community. When theory of action is done correctly, the entire system changes, which is understandably scary to educators. No one likes a dealing with demolition, but when it’s rebuilt – you can’t believe you lived with the old way for so long.

Systems that are thriving have a comprehensive theory of action that often coincides with a clear logic model. They’ve created it collectively, bringing in multiple constituents and marginalized groups to not just hear, but ACT on these vital voices. They are focused on 1-2 initiatives attached to short term goals that live within a continuous cycle of improvement. Every dollar, every decision, spent is aligned to the theory of action.

School systems must take a pause. Put in the hard work that needs to be done on the front end in order to make these funds matter. Allow the programs you invest in to be in service to the grander plan for necessary change – our students.