Effective school boards and superintendents engage in strategic planning for the future of their district and the schools they serve (Hayes, 2002, pg. 23). These strategic plans create measurable expectations for assessing the performance of the district in meeting public needs and remaining accountable for resource use (Hayes, 2002, pg. 23). Strategic planning recognizes that school districts should be concerned with their role in the community, and the role that various stakeholders within the community play in student learning (Stewart & Bailey, 1992, pg. 6). District level strategic planning promotes strategic thinking and enhances the responsiveness of the district by supporting programming for strategies and formally operationalizing their consequences (Bryson, 1995; Sheppard, Brown, & Dibbon, 2009, pg. 34).
Effective strategic planning applies principles of systems thinking and addresses school, community, district, and government concerns (Shaked & Schechter, 2016, pg. 183). Complex systems involve ambiguity and change and benefit from an iterative, helical planning approach including cycles of assessment, planning, and implementation that consider the multiple influences on, and reasons for, issues, and view the whole of school life as a system and not isolated, smaller parts (Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 71; Shaked & Schechter, 2013, pp. 780-781, 786).
This post outlines how a district superintendent might generate an educational strategic plan with measurable and timely goals that takes into account multiple stakeholder needs, state legislation, and collective agreements, while supporting organizational learning and distributed leadership at the school and district level (Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 34).
Stage 1: Planning to Plan
Before generating the strategic plan, the superintendent should educate stakeholders (board members, faculty, staff, community, parents, and business people) regarding the state of public education globally and locally, inform them of the importance and value of the strategic planning process, and gather feedback to assess what change, if any, is needed (Hambright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 98; Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 51).
Select Planning Team
Assuming that the board has determined that the superintendent should act as facilitator, the most important step is the selection of the planning team (Hambright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 98). It should be a broad-based panel reflecting the makeup of the district and enlisting leaders from multiple sources to represent the values and perspectives needing consideration (Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 129). To promote student achievement through increased stakeholder engagement, the superintendent should act as a “boundary spanner” between parents, community partners, schools, collective bargaining groups, and governments to foster collaborative and distributed leadership and a culture of trust (Gordon & Louis, 2012, pp. 351, 357; Starratt, 2008, pp. 88-89; Sheppard et al., 2009, pp. 51, 102). Diverse planning teams facilitate fluid and connective opportunities that produce workable plans for action, cognitive shifts, and reframing of challenges, and apply democratic, communitarian, and economic theories of stakeholder shared leadership (Grogan & Shakeshaft, 2011, pp. 120, 125; Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 349; Starratt, 2008, pg. 89). Parents, teachers, and other stakeholders selected for involvement may lack the language and expertise to be participative, so superintendents should determine training needs and provide instruction on shared governance and other topics (Gordon & Louis, 2012, pp. 350, 366; Hambright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 98). Planning team members should be asked to begin collection of internal and external data to inform later decision-making.
Stage 2: Strategic Planning
After training and data collection concludes, the strategic planning process should begin. To promote critical thinking, problem solving, iterative planning, and to overcome the limitations of hierarchical bureaucracy and promote innovation and collaborative construction of new knowledge, a “studio” model of collaborative planning, involving open physical spaces, fluid group composition, and honest sharing is suggested throughout the strategic planning process (Chance, 2012, pg. 50).
Determine Norms and Guidelines
First, the planning team should author guidelines and norms for desirable and unacceptable practices to foster honest communication and allow for feedback on issues (Hambright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 102; Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 50). Open dialogue between planning team members can aid in understanding and modifying mental models, and bring to light ‘hidden transcripts’ and issues that may be taken for granted (Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 50; Duffy, 2003, pg. 36; Bates, 2013, pg. 46). Also, a model of consensus and decision-making that takes into account the superintendent’s legal, fiduciary, and administrative obligations should be chosen (Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 59).
Determine Core Beliefs and Principles
Next, the superintendent should lead the planning team to determine the district’s guiding beliefs, ethical code, and moral commitments, to create an atmosphere for collaborative leadership and demonstrate teamwork on the basis of shared beliefs (Hambright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 99; Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 49; Hayes, 2002, pg. 25). Outlining core community values develops reference points to ensure the district is accountable to local values and provides the foundation for a vision and mission anchored in guiding principles (Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 350; Chance, 2010, pg. 45; Hayes, 2002, pg. 23).
Develop Vision and Mission Statements
Mission and vision statements based on shared values should be collaboratively developed (Harbright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 98; Hayes, 2004, pg. 23; Starratt, 2008, pg. 88; Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 365). These statements act as a moral compass for decision-making, address student success, and ensure that high standards are pursued, and their public communication increases stakeholder and community involvement (Sheppard et al., 2009, pp. 71-72; Starratt, 2008, pg. 80; Kaufman & Grise, 1995, pg. 12; Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 365).
Conduct Internal & External Environmental Scans
Planning team representatives should carry out objective internal and external environmental scans of influencers and actors (government, unions, professional associations, legal bodies, business groups) for data pertinent to the educational environment, to be used to plan tactics to address issues and identify goals (Harbright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 100; Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 103; Starratt, 2008, pp. 88-89). Internal assessments of vision implementation in schools and the district allow for emphasis on individual professional learning so schools can decide how to meet their professional development needs (Sheppard et al., 2009, pp. 37, 79). External scans promote a multidimensional view allowing for increased understanding and influence in social, legal, political, and cultural contexts, and promoting success through connection to wider environments and understanding of the community’s cultural, social, and intellectual resources (Shaked & Schechter, 2016, pg. 183; Starratt, 2008; pp. 80, 89; Fullan, 1993, pg. 21).
Identify and Prioritize Strategic Issues
Planning teams should produce a statements that assesses district needs in terms of discrepancies between the current state of education in the district and what is required (Harbright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 100). Key to this process is viewing problems as growth opportunities, and defining issues as gaps between current and desired results, and not as insufficient resources, means, or methods (Fullan, 1993, pg. 21-22; Kaufman & Grise, 1995, pp. 8-10). Strategic issues should be prioritized based on the magnitude of their systemic significance, urgency, or financial cost-benefit analysis (Hayes, 2002, pg. 23; Hambright & Diamantes, 2004, pg. 100; Shaked & Schechter, 2013, pg. 781).
Stage 3: Action Planning
Action teams of school and community members should be formed to create plans that address strategic issues, achieve actionable goals, and review policies, programs, and strategies currently in place for effectiveness (Harbright & Dianamtes, 2004, pg. 101). The superintendent should facilitate communication and formal and informal networking between action groups to facilitate collaboration, problem solving, and minimize artificial distinctions between strategy formulation and implementation (Chase, 2010, pg. 50; Grogan & Shakeshaft, 2011, pg. 112)
Action teams should review issues and the shared vision to create goal statements with time frames, measurable qualitative or quantitative success indicators, and multiple levels of results at the individual, district, and community level, to provide for accountability (Hayes, 2002, pg. 45; Kaufman & Grse, 1995, pp. 7-10; Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, pg. 206; Gordon & Louis, 2012, pg. 350). Numbers, specific assessments, and arbitrary quotas should be avoided to prevent future corruption of shared visions resulting from system gaming (Hargreaves & Shirley, Chapter 2, Paragraph 52; Sidorkin, 2016, pg. 322; Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, pg. 215).
Determine Action Steps
Action teams should apply backward design principals to create plans outlining strategies, short- and long-term actions, and individual responsibilities, in an implementation schedule with a year-by-year cost projection that balances system benefits and tradeoffs (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007; pg. 206; Chase, 2010, pg. 47). The action plan and schedule should allow for flexibility in implementation structure to support and empower teachers, principals, and middle leaders to modify plans in nonlinear ways to best meet their local needs and contexts when setting goals and determining professional development (Adams, 2000, pg. 36; Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 87; Hallinger, 2003, pg. 32; Sergiovanni, 1992, pg. 380). The final action plans should be submitted to the board for approval, compiled, and presented to the public.
Step 4: Implementation, Monitoring, & Evaluation
Continued monitoring and evaluation will help ensure that efforts outline in the strategic plan are succeeding and implementation is being carried out (Sheppard, 2009, pg. 102; Adams, 2000; pg. 36). The superintendent should promote mutually supportive relationships between the district and schools by providing services, facilitating communication across the district to connect teams, and supporting networking and improvisation to creatively integrate social, political, and consensual dimensions into continued iterative planning processes (Feldman et al., 2003; Grogan & Shakeshaft, 2011, pg. 112; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012; Chance, 2010, pp. 49-51). The implementation of the strategic plan should be validated and evaluated through frequent planning team meetings in which objectives and strategies can be modified and added. Such annual or semi-annual updates serve as documents of accountability and assessments of progress and success (Webster & Luehe, 1994, pg. 24).
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Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.