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The False Premises of ‘Strategic Planning’

By Richard Sagor — April 01, 1992 8 min read
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An innovative planning technique is blowing through school districts with the speed and force of a tornado crossing the plains. The words “strategic planning’’ have entered the lexicon of nearly every school board and superintendent as this “cutting edge’’ management technique becomes a growth industry saving countless educational consultants from the bite of recession.

Yet the “strategic-planning movement’’ is not simply another example of public education’s infatuation with modern business concepts. It is, more importantly, an illustration of larger, more ominous problems with our educational system.

In recent years it has become vogue for public-school superintendents to outfit themselves with the rhetoric and style of corporate executives. I’m not sure if this trend had its origins with the proliferation of popular business treatises like In Search of Excellence and The One-Minute Manager, or if it was an outgrowth of the Reagan era with its discrediting of public administration and glorification of corporate magnates. What I do know is that the techniques of the “one-minute reprimand,’' the habits of “managing by walking around,’' and “quality circles’’ have invaded most school systems with a vengeance.

My concern with the “strategic planning’’ fad is that it accentuates and reinforces two of education’s most severe recent failings: our fondness for bandwagons and our tendency to focus on public relations rather than student performance. Given the problems facing schools and schoolchildren, we should avoid any trend that diverts attention from the real issue of improving how our students perform. I have yet to see any evidence that “strategic planning’’ has resulted in improved student learning.

To understand the problem of applying this concept to schools we should examine the goals of the strategic-planning process from the perspective of two distinctly different hypothetical organizations: “Golden Delicious Computer Company’’ and “Middle America School District.’'

Let’s assume that Golden Delicious currently produces products that are renown for both their quality and customer appeal. We can imagine someone arguing that for continued success all the company has to do is keep making the same great products while maintaining the same level of quality control. But even the most unschooled observer of modern business can see the peril in following that course. Since Golden Delicious’s competitors won’t be standing still, and since the fickle demands of the marketplace will inevitability change, if the company simply maintains its historically successful product line it will fail.

Survival for a computer company lies in its ability to accurately project what the market will demand at some given point down the road and then produce those products effectively and efficiently before the competition does. To do anything less would be to concede valuable market share. In this context, strategic planning implies boldly and accurately predicting an uncertain future and having a willingness to take risks based on those projections.

Now let’s examine planning in the context of Middle America School District. Let’s assume that Middle America has been doing a fairly good job and that the district enjoys widespread community support. What would be their incentive to change their programs and/or educational approaches? If a conservative Middle American School Board chooses to change nothing for five years and instead simply “stays the course,’' what impact might that have on their operation? I suspect not very much!

In fact, even if the folks in Middle America let their system regress, the consequences would likely be minimal. In a worst-case scenario, the superintendent might be let go, frustrated teachers would find jobs elsewhere, and local levy requests might be defeated. But even after five years of decline, business at Middle America would continue pretty much as usual. State and federal dollars would continue to arrive on schedule, local residents would continue to send their children to school (even if they did so reluctantly), and the school system would survive.

Clearly, the incentive system supporting change in the manufacturing sector is different than that in the school business. While a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke’’ mentality may be disastrous for a computer manufacturer, it might be not only logical but even desirable for a school district. Most of us can recall more superintendents’ losing their jobs for taking risks than for being too cautious.

The “strategic’’ part of strategic planning, as used by corporate planners, is the assessment of the tough and frequently controversial decisions one must make to navigate between profitability and disaster. And we shouldn’t underestimate the potentially divisive nature of such decisions. If a computer company chooses to shift its emphasis from one sector to another--for example, a move from commercial to consumer products--it is likely the choice would meet with disapproval from some internal constituencies. In fact, we could expect almost any bold strategic decision to ruffle the feathers of some internal vested interest. But the competitive manufacturer understands that a certain level of disaffection may (sometimes) be the cost of doing business in a dynamic market.

For the modern public-school executive, on the other hand, dissention and controversy are usually seen as the enemy. Corporate executives can lose their jobs when profitability drops; school superintendents lose theirs when controversy erupts. As a result, the built-in incentive systems of the two types of organizations are fundamentally different, with corporate C.E.O.'s pursuing improved performance and school executives pursuing public relations and consensus.

Almost all of the public-school “strategic plans’’ I’ve seen have been developed using similar processes and, not surprisingly, most of them end up sounding the same. The favored process emphasizes the representation of an array of diverse groups, including parents, staff, union representatives, and management personnel. The goal of the strategic-planning task force is to “brainstorm’’ a district “mission statement’’ that, so the rhetoric goes, “we can all agree to.’'

With consensus as the goal, it should be no surprise that the mission statements all tend to look alike. For the politicized public school, the best mission is not necessarily the one that responds to children’s needs, but the one that this influential group of adults seem disinclined to fight over. Obviously, such plans can be expected to upset the fewest apple carts and leave the status quo fundamentally intact.

For many businesses, strategic planning is no more than a means to an end (productivity); for schools, the process itself is the end. This difference is because the two types of organizations have fundamentally different goals. One seeks survival, the other harmony.

This misapplication of corporate-planning strategy is, I believe, more than a mere curiosity. Although I am a strong supporter of public education, I am compelled to acknowledge that our schools have many critical problems that we have yet to face up to aggressively. As the late Ron Edmonds pointed out, we know what an effective school is, yet we continue to tolerate ineffective schools for most of our students. He was defining an “effective school’’ as one that achieves its learning targets with all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

If we are to truly mount an attack on illiteracy and underperformance, it will necessarily require bold and controversial action. Yet if our favorite planning mechanism is destined to reinforce the values of compromise over aggressive action, we will never muster the wherewithal to sustain meaningful improvement. Strategies that reward vested interests cannot be expected to refocus a tradition-bound organization.

Just because schools and businesses are different, however, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other. Certain business practices may be appropriate for schools. No one would argue that strategic planning aimed at improving a measurable bottom line is not needed by the students in our schools. Whether such plans can be expected to emerge from organizations that prefer self-aggrandizing “brainstorming’’ to data-based decisionmaking is questionable.

On the other hand, if we choose to reorganize our school systems to be market-driven rather than politically driven, as John Chubb and Terry Moe have suggested in their book, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, then the strategic-planning model would make sense. In such a system, the consequences of failing to anticipate the needs and preferences of the market would be instantly felt by the slow-to-change school.

Most incumbent public-school executives, though, have rejected the Chubb/Moe market system of schooling. They argue that our young people will be best served by reforms in the current system. If that is their goal, then they must avoid the folly of the so-called educational “strategic plan.’'

If we wish to reform the current system, we might as well skip a lengthy debate on objectives. We already have a definiton of what “effectiveness’’ is (all students meeting high expectations), and we know that it can be achieved. So what is there to “brainstorm’’ about? Committing to create an effective school is not the same thing as dreaming up a new computer line.

We would be well advised to focus our limited attention on the moral obligation we hold as educators to create effective schools for all the children and then do everything necessary to meet that obligation. Attending to that focus doesn’t require a mission statement, an environmental scan, or any of the other trappings of a strategic plan. It does, however, require determination, conviction, and a willingness to buck special interests.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Education Week as The False Premises of ‘Strategic Planning’

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