The Pitfalls of Strategic Planning

If showing the value of investing in schools is the aim, continuous system improvement is the game by SHARON W. COX AND ROBERT L. BASTRESS

Imagine you just signed a contract to become superintendent of the B+ school district and have begun to study the critical issues facing the school system that soon will be your responsibility. With more than 20,000 students, it is one of the largest in the state.

Less than 20 miles from a major city, the district’s small town/suburban landscape is changing. The number of minority students is growing, fueled by a flourishing Hispanic community. Overcrowded schools will soon require the community’s taxpayers to consider a construction bond, leaving little time to develop the level of support and trust you enjoyed in your previous district of fewer than 4,000 students.

Sharon CoxConsultant Sharon Cox is a former school board president in Montgomery County, Md. Photo by Bill Mills/MCPS

Once on board, you decide to implement a community-led strategic planning process. It’s touted as a way to create a strong public advocacy that wins school construction bond elections and generates support for resources to help your district’s growing population of English language learners.

The board of education approves your initiative. Several board members, central-office and school-based staff members, union heads, students, parents, representatives of local government, and the business community join your strategic planning team. Over the next several months, you spend hours in team and community meetings. The results are promoted as a road map to success. But it’s not really a strategic plan.

Credible Roadmap
Superintendents across the country have shared their frustration with planning initiatives that consume valuable chunks of time and energy without yielding a viable tool to drive improvement and accountability. Our example reflects the actual experience of a school district whose identity we are shielding by calling it “the B+ school district.” A $169 million construction bond was passed by the voters, but the B+ strategic plan was not a credible road map to excellence in student and operational performance.

A successful strategic planning process cultivates a highly effective school district while energizing community support for systemic improvements. The result is an action planning framework for achieving objectives aligned with the district’s vision for success. Or, as described by our colleague, Michael Perich, a consultant on systemwide continuous improvement in the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools: You are creating your own system for doing the right thing, the right way, for the right results.

The B+ school district’s experience illustrates four common pitfalls.

Pseudo Planning
Wanting the most value for our investment can allow us to be misled by multipurpose processes that promise all the results we desire. Just like multipurpose school rooms that function as both gym and cafeteria, a multipurpose process sounds better than it works.

A successful political process requires community ownership of advocacy strategies because the ultimate goal is achieved through community influence and action. A successful operational plan requires community support. But strategies need to be generated, owned and implemented by the staff responsible for transforming the district’s vision into reality.

Consider the guiding principle the B+ district team identified for addressing enrollment growth: equity in all facility-related decisions. Community advocacy for new facilities or greater funding positively correlates to the perceived benefit to advocates’ children and/or neighborhoods.

Community members tend to think of equity in terms of resources, not outcomes, making it difficult to accept that “equitable is not equal.” They may agree that children and staff should have equitable access to high-quality education facilities but protest instructional program funding decisions based on students’ needs.

Some processes tie building community support and advocacy for resources to long-range plans’ visioning exercises. Not surprisingly, asking people to describe what the district should look like in 25 years creates an expectation that action to achieve the vision will begin immediately. Statements from one district’s community-led long-range planning committee’s reports illustrate the problem:

•  “We challenge you to look to the future and take definitive action now on the strategies for change provided in this report.”

•  “We believe the most important action to be taken at this time is for our committee to review and provide input to (the district’s) Continuous Improvement Team (CIT) … Our plan is to serve as adjunct members of the CIT.”

Our advice: Avoid processes that conflate community advocacy for funding initiatives with advocacy for specific operational strategies. The plans that result are usually incompatible with the leadership and management responsibilities of the superintendent.

Undue Influence
Developing a plan to guide your district’s operations requires the community to be engaged — not in charge. Identifying and prioritizing specific strategies to achieve goals is the work of the superintendent and his or her staff. Community-led processes often cross that line, and children’s interests give way to the interests of those with access and influence.

The second goal of the B+ district’s plan, “Make sure all students are prepared for college and the workforce,” was supported by this strategy: “We will continue our Hispanic outreach programs to ensure that all students meet both standards and graduation requirements.” The specific results were implementation activities. They included developing new mentorship programs and increasing alternative education options and intervention programs, all aimed at Hispanic students — choices corresponding to low expectations and an interest in keeping “those kids” from disrupting the regular program.

A community engagement model allows management to capitalize on two-way communication by challenging fallacies and improving stakeholders’ understanding of what excellence requires. A research-based demonstration that academic rigor is necessary for both college and career readiness refutes the bias against high expectations revealed in the “Not all kids are going to college” refrain.

An engagement planning model recognizes the critical connection between the community’s vision for the district and support for necessary resources. Input is sought from a broad spectrum of stakeholders regarding their aspirations for student outcomes, expectations for the district’s work, and perspectives on strengths, challenges and opportunities.

This informs the superintendent’s recommendations for and the board’s adoption of guiding tenets. The vision (what success looks like), mission (the district’s role and responsibility in achieving that vision) and values (beliefs that translate into best practices) statements are the “what,” not the “how,” of the plan.

When board and community members lead operational planning, plans often incorporate strategies based on stakeholder interests and disconnected from student outcomes. This underscores the critical importance of clarity in the role of the superintendent as the chief executive officer, responsible for system operations.

Role Confusion
In another school district, where state law required a master plan, the school board directed staff to engage in a series of community and committee meetings to develop a strategic plan. Community input was used to craft vision and mission statements and create five timeless strategic goals with multiple focus areas for a five-year time frame.

The board did not differentiate its own work from the work of the district. This became readily apparent when setting a deadline for a decision on school uniforms — one board member’s particular interest — served as a benchmark for the goal of children feeling safe in school.

Staff had the unwieldy task of melding board and district master-plan objectives into a strategic plan. Establishing measures of success was especially difficult. A year later, the board was seeking outside help in developing a new strategic plan.

Confusion on the roles of governance and administration can seriously derail planning. Unless the topic is the work of the board, not the district, board members should not participate in making recommendations on which they will eventually have to vote. It’s a conflict.

An effective board works to ensure the district plan is student-centered. Members of the board help stakeholders understand a few important things: Every student is capable but not always ready to learn; resources need to be targeted to deconstruct barriers to readiness; a school system is made up of people who need time to learn and competently implement new concepts and methods.

The B+ school district’s completed plan’s specific results had little connection to student achievement. They were activities with no measures of success. To address the goal of “Build a world-class school system,” the plan called for hiring a community relations coordinator, providing all staff with training to become effective public communicators, producing newsletters and brochures, and conducting surveys. These activities may help pass a bond issue, but they clearly are unrelated to student achievement.

Clarity of roles and responsibilities in district planning is vitally important to a successful process. The superintendent recommends, for board action, guiding tenets and overarching goals. Goals describe the desired state of student and organizational performance such as “Students engaged in learning meet or exceed standards.” The superintendent then identifies performance objectives and measures for each goal and develops systemic strategies that reflect adopted values.

The school board’s oversight ensures alignment of the operational plan with the guiding tenets. The board completes the feedback loop by seeking community input to help inform the superintendent’s review and recommendations for revision.

Disconnected Actions
Effective strategic planning, predicated on knowing how an organization works as a system, requires ongoing strategic management. Remember, it’s your system for doing the right thing, the right way, for the right results.

Whatever you call the elements of your plan, it’s strategic if it strengthens the comprehensive alignment and congruence of the district’s work with a clear vision of excellence in student and operational performance. It is an action planning framework for the “plan, do, study, act” cycle that continuous improvement demands, not a list of activities.

The B+ school district’s plan did not drive the district’s work. It identified no leading or lagging indicators, necessary data, measurable objectives, targets, timelines, action plans, or responsible offices or positions. Annual reports listed activities as accomplishments. Results of activities were not quantified, analyzed or connected to recommendations for future action.

Most importantly, the B+ district’s plan didn’t help the school system become a learning organization. Without a focus on key processes, information management and the continuous improvement cycle, isolated initiatives did not translate into systemic improvements. After four years, efforts to improve data-driven instructional decision making and implement a K-12 district literacy plan resulted in the district making adequate yearly progress for elementary English language arts but still failing to achieve it for elementary math and secondary English and math. Having a viable plan wouldn’t have guaranteed success. It would have ensured staff had more and better information to define, design and deploy their strategies and accelerate systemwide progress.

Management and reporting go hand in hand. Strategic plan reports are transparent in their review and analysis of what needs to change to improve results. They also are unabashed in touting the successes of the district’s staff and students.

This balance of public information and public relations fosters community understanding and support for the district’s work.

The latest report on the B+ district’s plan describes recent and ongoing initiatives without making recommendations for the next year or providing data on the impact of any initiative. Its “good news only” format suggests the district has made no cultural advances. It’s almost as if you can hear staff saying, “Why are we spending time on this when we have real work to do?”

Strategic management of a viable plan is the real work. It requires the district to create a framework for implementation and evaluation, embedding effective systemic processes. The framework addresses rollout, sequencing and capacity building through the development of aligned school and office plans. It supports mapping of key processes as well as monitoring fidelity of implementation and analyzing results through scorecards and dashboards. It lays out a timeline for revisions, updates and reporting in a continuous improvement cycle that connects staff, the superintendent, the board and the community.

A Sustained Investment
If you manage to avoid the pitfalls, it still won’t be easy. Yet implementing a plan for a system that compels staff excellence, builds capacity and improves student outcomes is the best way to demonstrate the value of the community’s investment in the schools. It is also the best way to instill confidence in your community that sustaining that investment ensures your students are equipped for whatever future they envision.

Sharon Cox is president of Synergetic Leadership Group in Germantown, Md. E-mail: synergeticleadershipgroup@gmail.com. Robert Bastress is president of Bastress Consulting Group in Sykesville, Md.