Five Reasons Your District's Strategic Plan Failed
Somewhere in school district offices all across the country, there are beautiful strategic planning documents, carefully bound, sitting on a shelf, gathering dust and having absolutely no effect on how the school district functions from day to day. They have utterly failed.
Honest. I am absolutely a horse.
It doesn’t have to be that way (readAndrea Gabor’s After the Education Warsfor examples of districts like Leander, Texas, where having a plan and a vision has made a tremendous difference). Most states require school districts to do some sort of strategic planning on a regular cycle—well, to be accurate, most states require school districts to submit some sort of paperwork that indicates that strategic planning has occurred.
In 39 years of teaching, I've been through the process about seven times, and shared many tales with fellow teachers who have also joined the strategic plan at their school. None of us have any stories of strategic plans that were actually used. Why does the strategic planning process turn out to be so useless for school districts? Here are some of the most common problems that derail the process and the product.
Boxing Out The Stakeholders
The process is supposed to include all the stakeholders—teachers, parents, stakeholders and in some cases even students. But for a district administration that wants to keep the process under their own control, it’s not that hard to box the other stakeholders out—either deliberately or by mismanagement. Hold long unproductive meetings and folks will quickly draw the conclusion that they’re wasting their time. Break into small groups with each group led by a member of the administrative team, and you can keep those groups from coming up with anything the administration doesn’t welcome. Along with that comes a hundred little moves, from seating arrangements to leadership assignments, to remind stakeholders who is really the boss here. And never forget the simple things, like inconvenient meeting schedules, that can discourage people from attending.
The trick here is to get people to sign up (for the paperwork) but not to actually participate in the process. Then the administration can just write the plan to suit their own priorities and interests (and to ignore what they prefer to ignore). When you’re done, you have a document in which the stakeholders don’t have a stake. More importantly, having been uninvolved in creating the document, they know nothing about its intent or emphasis. They may not even know what it says, as the follow-up to this sort of planning can be a simple emailed link that nobody follows to an online file that nobody reads.
Because these committees are self-selecting, you get volunteers who are motivated for any number of reasons. Let’s try to get prayers back in school. Let’s get an elementary tidy-winks program going so my child can be in it. Sometimes a particular group is moved to show up and advocate for their cause, and that can be anyone from your local Tea Party chapter to the band parents. There is nothing at all wrong with people acting out of strong motivation about their preferred issues, but their belief that they can alter the district’s course by pushing the strategic plan one way or another is naively hopeless. The problem is that you end up with a committee that does not accurately reflect the concerns of all the stakeholders, which equals zero buy-in, which equals everyone ignoring the strategic plan.
This is truly the giant killer. A strategic plan needs a clear-ish understanding of where the district is right now. It’s pretty hard for a district to just come right out and say “We’re pretty racist here” or “We consider athletics a higher priority than academics.” And if your administration is your biggest problem but your administration is running your strategic planning process, you’ll waste your time hemming and hawing around the elephant in the room.
If you are not honest about the state of your district, then your strategic plan will be like detailed directions for driving from Harrisburg to Cleveland—except that you’re starting in Omaha. If you are not honest about the state of your district, your district’s culture will eat your plan for breakfast.
The Decision-Making Process
Every district has a real mission statement. It may not be written down, but it is evident in the decision-making process. The unwritten ones are often not very admirable: “Our mission is to do nothing that might prompt an angry parent phone call.” “Our mission is to spend the least amount of money we can get away with.” “Our mission is to raise test scores no matter the cost.” “Our mission is to keep doing as much of what we did last as year while cutting enough corners to let us do it with fewer resources.” Or even “Our mission is to give keep each child safe and secure while we provide them with an awesome education, no matter what.” Not all unwritten mission statements are terrible; only most of them.
If you have an unwritten mission statement and you do not root it out of the decision-making process, all your strategic planning is in vain. This is why a good plan is developed with wide spread stakeholder involvement—so that everyone understands what the decision making process is supposed to involve. Every person in your district should approach every decision with the question, “What does the strategic plan say we should decide?” Note: You cannot get this effect by issuing a decree from the central office. If you operate by decree, then your unwritten mission statement is “Our mission is to follow administrative directives” and your strategic planning was a waste of everyone’s time.
One of the most common outcomes is a plan designed by committee and largely useless. It will be headlined with a mission statement such as, “Camelback Schools will help each student meet their full potential by developing a full set of college and career ready 21st century skills to create lifelong learners.” Pro tip: If your mission statement doesn’t exclude any behavior not already ruled out by common sense, it’s useless. The body of this horse-by-committee will include action items that wispy enough to provide little direction but still leave leadership able to declare “Mission accomplished” whenever the mood strikes them. But then that’s the beauty of school district strategic plans—the state may require you to hand one in, but they’ll never hold you accountable for actually following it.