‘Strategic Planning’ Network Begins Studying Agenda for Future

By Susan Walton — February 22, 1984 7 min read

Things are going reasonably well at Glenbard South High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Peter Abruzzo, the school’s principal, reports that 85 percent of the 1,250 students go on to college and only 2.9 percent drop out. Although school officials expect a deficit in several years, the school is operating in the black.

But at Boston’s English High School, the nation’s oldest public high school, the picture is less positive. Administrators there expect changing enrollment patterns in the district to bring about major declines in the 1,800-member student body by next September, with further drops likely in later years. The dropout rate stands at about 40 percent. It is, says Sidney Smith, the school’s director of alternative education, “a school in trouble.”

Last week, Mr. Abruzzo and Mr. Smith joined colleagues from 21 other high schools to begin a venture that transcends their widely varying situations. As part of a new, 23-school “network” sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, they are launching a two-year project intended to address an issue that many educators say has received too little attention--long-range, “strategic” planning of curriculum.

The network, whose members will meet four times in the next two years, will help local school officials and community members analyze the changes for which they should be planning now if they are to have an instructional program suitable for all students in the next century, according to the ascd

The factors that they will need to take into account, participants suggested, include the changing job market, state actions to stiffen course requirements, shifts in student populations, growing global interdependence, and the public’s perception that the schools need improvement.

By the end of two years, if all goes as intended, the participating schools will have a clear idea of what they should be providing for students in the next two decades, as well as a process for doing so.

Well-Defined Goals

The 23 schools participating in the network--which includes one Department of Defense high school in Bonn, Germany--met for the first time last week to begin planning the project. The schools, chosen from about 90 applicants, were selected both because they are geographically and demographically diverse and because their officials presented well-defined goals, said the ascd sponsors.

The schools were asked to send to the meeting the principal, the district superintendent, and a teacher, and had the option of sending a school-board member. About half chose to send the board member. School districts must pay the cost of attending the network’s meetings.

Although the notion of planning is not new to school officials, participants agreed that in many cases, it seldom extends beyond enrollment and financial projections. “For many schools, long-range planning means next year’s budget,” one participant noted.

“I think strategic planning is the exception rather than the rule,” said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of ascd “A fair number of districts do some kind of planning to lay out a series of activities they intend to do over the next five years. The idea of strategic planning is a little more rigorous--it involves lots of talk about realities of the environment, the current situation, as one tries to get a firmer vision of where you’d like to be in five years. It’s not just waiting to see what happens with computers, with requirements, but to conceive the desired state five years ahead and put together a series of enabling strategies to get you there.”

In Princeton, N.J., where the process of strategic planning is well under way, district officials conducted an informal survey of school systems around the country that turned up very few that had a comprehensive long-range plan to work from, according to Paul D. Houston, Princeton’s superintendent, who spoke to the network members.

Participants cited several reasons for the dearth of such planning in the past, including budget cuts that have forced the elimination of central-office planning positions and day-to-day demands on the remaining administrators.

Moreover, Mr. Cawelti pointed out, school officials may be reluctant to initiate change themselves because they must deal with so many other changes over which they have little control. “There’s been an awful lot of change over the last two decades--unrest, growth in student numbers, money problems, integration, waves of innovations,” he said. “I think schools settle into a more comfortable, better known routine almost out of desperation, unable to cope and respond to a myriad of suggestions they get as to what they ought to do. So you have most realizing that they ought to be doing something better, but the day-to-day press of operations becomes almost overwhelming unless there is a serious commitment to planning.”

Representatives of the participating schools said their impetus to make that commitment developed from a variety of factors, including increased state requirements, the growing importance of educational technology, and profound changes in the nature of the job market.

“We want to determine the future instead of accepting it,” noted Mr. Abruzzo.

“What we’re really looking for is a process to help us go in the right direction,” added John O. Syphard Jr., principal of J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa.

In the Kenai (Alaska) Peninsula Borough School District, described by its representatives as “very spread out,” school officials are particularly interested in planning for the needs of the many students who do not continue their education after high school.

Strategic Planning

In the course of the two-and-a-half day meeting, participants heard about strategic planning from multiple perspectives, including those of two districts that are well into the strategic-planning process.

Harold Hodgkinson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership, said that strategic planning should address the needs of “a moving environment and a moving organization.”

“Each decade, we’re asked to roller-coaster our schools in response to some new idea,” Mr. Hodgkinson said. In the 1950’s, it was integration; in the 1960’s, it was innovation; in the 1970’s, it was relevance.

And in the 1980’s, he said, “It’s excellence, and it’s as if none of these other things ever existed.”

“The problem for you is that you get whipsawed,” Mr. Hodgkinson said. “Somebody comes up and says, ‘Well, the schools are okay, but they need reorganizing.”’

What school officials must do, Mr. Hodgkinson suggested, is “build their own movement” into their plans. Two techniques for planning, he said, are “environmental scanning” and monitoring the “vital signs’’ of schools. Environmental scanning involves looking at “the number of objects, how fast they’re going, and their direction,” Mr. Hodgkinson said. Vital signs might include such factors as the supply and training of teachers, students’ needs, programs, and money.

Mr. Hodgkinson also suggested areas that school officials will need to consider as they go about planning future curricula. He pointed to employment and the job market, which he said are changing in ways that are not yet entirely clear, as well as population density, parents’ and students’ expectations, access to opportunities, and quality.

Those who seek to develop a strategic plan, Mr. Cawelti noted, will need to take into account the recent spate of reports calling for education reform. Underlying most of those reports, he said, are two premises: that graduates are ill prepared and that shifts in the economy make the job market unpredictable.

Reports’ Themes

Mr. Cawelti enumerated five themes that run through most of the reports: standards, improving teaching, community involvement, organizing for improvement and renewal, and the nature of general education.

One approach to planning, he suggested, might be to take those themes and outline the steps needed to reach “the desired state.”

Another key element in strategic planning is “time for re-tooling and cooperative planning,” said Bruce Joyce, professor of education at the University of Oregon. Now, he said, schools seldom engage in such activities and teachers are accustomed to operating independently.

“We’re going to have to make that change in order to make further change and sustain it,” he said.

The network members will meet next in July in Aspen, Colo. At that time, they will discuss questions that participants agreed are the preludes to strategic planning: What are the goals of the school, and what will the world be like in the year 2000?

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1984 edition of Education Week as ‘Strategic Planning’ Network Begins Studying Agenda for Future