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Strategic Planning or the 'Titanic Solution'?

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In a recent essay by Richard Sagor entitled "The False Premises of Strategic Planning'' (Commentary, April 1, 1992), the author essentially contends that if we just make "reform in the current system,'' all will be well in America's educational future. Only the proverbial Rip Van Winkle emerging from two decades of blissful somnolence would make such a claim, given the failure of reform during the 70's and 80's inherent in merely rearranging the deck chairs on the educational ship of state.

While strategic planning's direct effect on student learning may incorporate too many extraneous variables to quantify, what we do know from experience is that lack of comprehensive organizational planning, in a strategic context, will not only impede efficiency of instructional delivery but also will waste precious resources that could be devoted to learning improvement, if only a plan existed.

In fact, the folly of simply attempting to maintain the status quo for schools in a world of high-speed computing and biotechnical revolution would be merely pathetic reveling in nostalgia were it not criminally myopic in terms of the present state of global economics, competition in the world workplace, and technological advancement.

If the role of the modern superintendent is merely to seek positive public relations through consensus-building, then strategic planning will inevitably cause more problems than it solves. No safety-seeking chief executive would dare risk the public scrutiny that examination of organizational weaknesses and competition would inevitably bring. If, however, the mission of leadership for public education is to efficiently and effectively manage resources to achieve maximum learning and growth for youngsters, then whether the techniques to do it come from business, government, or wherever shouldn't be the issue. What should be is what works for students, teachers, and taxpayers to get the most results for their educational investment. If formulating that idea into localized mission statements, measurable objectives, and workable strategies is too mechanistic or realistic for schools, then the accountability movement of the last 20 years has indeed fallen on deaf ears.

The debate over what constitutes an effective school is long settled. It is the will and the means that remain an issue. Since many of our schools and school systems remain untouched by the implementation of the seemingly simple yet profound belief statement of the late Ron Edmonds--"all children can learn''--then one must ask, is it the will or the means that precludes the realization of this vision?

If it's the former, then the future of our democracy is in greater danger than we currently know. But if it's the latter, why wouldn't reasonable, thinking leadership turn to designing its own future vision through a rational, accountable process like strategic planning? Could it be that fear of exposure of the real performance and attendance patterns in our schools would so frighten the community that these stones are better left unturned?

Is the fear of achieving consensus through compromise to address these issues so great that a process used to found our republic should not be employed to preserve it through school reform?

These are troubling questions that no mere rejection of market-driven schools as too mercenary or rationalistic can assuage. If we simply continue our deck-chair dance of rearrangement of existing, failed, yesterday solutions to today's and tommorrow's problems, we can indeed expect to accept whatever the politicians can broker through the legislatures as school reform. However, if we choose to "seize the moment'' through the adoption of positivism, we can affect our own future and, rather than just exist, can prevail.

Whether we use strategic planning, or some other rational assertive process to achieve the change we know needs to occur, we have become in effect the hammer rather than the nail in our efforts to approach the 21st century with some semblance of schools ready for a tommorrow that we choose to design, instead of schools that are designed for us.

Chris Shy is an assistant professor of education at Ohio University and an associate of the Cambridge Management Group.

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