Theory of Change



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Theory of Change

An Overview



AVID changes both the individuals involved in the program and the school communities in which it resides.


AVID changes individuals. In 1980, Mary Catherine Swanson, an AP English teacher at Clairemont High School in San Diego, created the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) system when she recruited 32 low-income, diverse students in the middle academically (C students), and enrolled them in a college preparatory sequence and an AVID elective class. The AVID class included development of study skills, tutoring in collaborative study groups, and a curriculum focused on writing for learning in all disciplines.
AVID's program design was originally based on a theory of change that centered on the process of learning. Mary Catherine Swanson collaborated with Dr. Uri Treisman (a professor at UC Berkeley at the time) to develop this theory of change through learning. They observed teachers interacting with students and asking questions for which they had pre-conceived answers they wanted from the students. Teachers typically asked the question twice, got a couple of responses, and if they did not get the answers they sought, they would answer it themselves. The problem was that the students never understood why the answer was correct.

Swanson and Treisman concluded that to learn effectively, individuals must go through five steps:




  1. They have to get information from reading, lectures, and other avenues.

  2. They must cogitate on the information and figure out what the information means to them, based on their own experience.

  3. They must identify what they are unclear about.

  4. They must collaborate with other students so that they can ask questions and get clarification.

  5. They must get to know the concept well enough so that they can explain it in writing and explain it to someone else verbally, so that the other student understands.

The individual researches what they want to know, thinks through the problem, and identifies what answers they need to address it. They work with others to gather more information and assess different viewpoints. They organize the information and their thoughts enough to explain their conclusions to others, both verbally and in writing.


This process changes students in several ways. First, it makes them responsible for their own learning. They come to understand that they have the ability to seek out answers for themselves, and to solve problems through thoughtful action. They learn to organize their thoughts, work with others, and to express themselves clearly and effectively. They see a path that will enable them to become effective, self-sustaining members of society. AVID helps students envision their future, challenges them to succeed, prepares them to succeed, and supports them as they pursue the long road to success.
AVID changes schools and school districts. AVID was originally developed to meet the needs of underachieving ethnic and linguistic minority and low-income students. To the gratification of all involved, however, AVID often results in the complete transformation of the academic, college-going culture of the school. Students from all backgrounds begin attaining higher levels of achievement. AVID helps reform schools because it confronts a fundamental systemic issue: the de facto tracking that tends to keep low income and minority students out of college preparatory programs and which results in lower levels of academic achievement.
Research has demonstrated that AVID offers an effective way to address these problems because:


  1. AVID accelerates under-achieving students into more rigorous courses, instead of consigning them to remedial programs that do not fulfill the prerequisites for college preparatory courses and only put students farther and farther behind.




  1. AVID incorporates the intensive support students need to succeed in rigorous courses. This support is formally structured into a credit-carrying AVID elective and is intensive – AVID classes meet every day and students apply its study methods in every class. Support also is continuous: AVID students are required to participate for at least three years, and the ideal is to remain in AVID through middle and high school.




  1. AVID addresses instructional methods as well as access. AVID classes incorporate a collegial approach and Socratic methods that specifically target the needs of underachieving students. AVID also incorporates practices such as study groups that help students become independent learners.




  1. AVID is a school-wide initiative, not a school within a school. AVID works to influence the belief system and culture of the entire school. As AVID and the success of its students become a school-wide priority, teachers in all disciplines are challenged to change some of their beliefs and practices to help AVID students achieve, and these changes typically help all students. As teachers observe the results of AVID methods, they seek to adapt them in their own classrooms, “AVIDizing” entire schools. The role of teacher is redefined from lecturer to advocate and guide. The role of counselor changes from gatekeeper to facilitator. The school-based peer group for AVID students becomes one that values achievement. AVID provides the academic training necessary for success in rigorous curriculum.




  1. AVID incorporates and gives life to an explicit belief system: that low income and minority students can achieve at high levels and attend colleges. This philosophical underpinning and the success of AVID help to change the expectations that teachers and students have of disadvantaged and minority students. Simply breaking the paradigm, raising expectations, is a crucial first step toward closing the achievement gap between racial and economic groups. AVID makes the success of under-achieving students a school-wide issue and leads to significant changes in course assignment policies, instructional methods, and school culture that contribute to their success.




  1. AVID addresses many aspects of the education system. The role of teacher is redefined from lecturer to advocate and guide. The role of counselor changes from gatekeeper to facilitator. The school-based peer group for AVID students becomes one that values achievement.

  2. AVID incorporates something badly needed by schools and teachers engaged in the daunting task of reform: strong collegial support. Each AVID site team is based on the notion that the success of students is a shared responsibility. As staff work together throughout the year as well as at Summer Institutes and regional events, they encourage and inspire one another. National and regional AVID centers facilitate this network by sharing information about successful practices and sponsoring training.




  1. All AVID strategies are based on research on tracking and peer influences in student achievement.

AVID’s theory of change is to transform a school and/or district’s culture into one in which all students are expected to achieve and are given the tools and skills to do so. As AVID grows and becomes embedded in a school, across a feeder pattern, and throughout a district, teacher, student and parent belief systems change. Students from all backgrounds come to believe that they are capable of attaining higher levels of achievement and reject the de facto tracking that tends to keep low income and minority students out of college and career readiness programs, and out of STEM subject and rigorous coursework.


To reach the “tipping point” that changes the school’s culture, a critical mass of students and teachers need to actively participate in the AVID program. Based on anecdotal evidence and their extensive experience working with schools and school districts, AVID Center leaders believe that this tipping point is reached when approximately 50% or more of the teachers have been trained in AVID methodology and when about 10% or more of the students are enrolled in an AVID elective class.



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