Emerging Technology

Strategic and Operational Plans

I suspect many readers do not know that the K-12 accreditation agencies around the United Sates require school districts to create and update a strategic plan as part of maintaining their accredited status. Yes, you know your district has a strategic plan, but not why. Most of you will privately admit that your district’s strategic plan has lofty goals with little information of how the district will get there or how it affects your daily activities.

It is interesting to note that what the accreditation agencies call a strategic plan is not what a business would call a strategic plan. Many people credit the books of Henry Mintzberg, of McGill University in the early 1970s, as the father of strategic planning. In today’s world, a strategic plan for business is one where you outline your goals, develop strategies to reach those goals, assign accountability and determine and allocate the resources required by those strategies — our organization is at point A and we want to move to point B, how will we get there?

Your district’s strategic plan should be called a vision statement: What do you want your district to achieve in the future? Or, perhaps, a mission statement: What is the purpose of your organization? Take a look at your strategic plan, which of the three questions above does it answer?

In the mid 1980s, AASA (American Association of School administrators) and ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) promoted strategic planning through wide dissemination of planning handbooks by Shirley McCune and Bill Cook. Cook graduated over 400 “certified strategic planners” through an AASA approved program. Today’s K-12 strategic planning process is essentially Bill Cook’s adaptation of Mintzberg’s concepts.

Here is the rub. Starting in the early 1990s, a number of papers and books came out showing that there was no evidence that strategic planning improved academic achievement or student learning. Even Mintzberg outlines in his 1995 book what he calls, the “grand fallacy” of strategic planning; creating good strategies is a synthesis of many factors not development of a formal set of procedures called strategic planning. He states that the term “strategic planning” has become an oxymoron.

However, he goes on to state that the current version of strategic planning has value and the statement is supported by educational studies showing that improved public relations (community involvement) is a real outcome from those processes. Please understand I am not suggesting that strategic plans or vision/mission statements are not valuable. They attempt to align a K-12 organization to a common set of values. We can build on top of those plans.

I want to introduce a business term to the educational readers — “operational plan.” An operational plan is the process of converting strategic goals and objectives into tactical goals and objectives. Creating a set of actionable strategies that can be measured. A number of you have experience with that type of plan, but we do not categorize them as operational planning; they are called facility master plans. Granted, FMPs are radically different from an operational plan focused on student learning; they do not involve people. As soon as we bring the learner and the teacher into the process, we add an aspect of irrationality. Meaning, we are not consistent regarding what criteria we use for making decisions. We are not scientific, thankfully.

Districts need to create an operational plan guiding the district activities across multiple years. Using the district’s strategic plan, focus on and build on the vision for learning expressed in that document. The first thing is to create a simple set of questions — maximum three to five — the classroom teacher can ask themselves regarding the student activities they plan to use today. It is important to align the organization, meaning that the board of education, executive team, department heads, building level administrators and teachers should all talk about student learning using those questions.

Simultaneously, the operational plan needs to define where on the continuum of learning is your district today and where do you want to be three to five years from now. Those who have read my columns know that I believe there are seven silos within school districts where we must break down the barriers and create connections. The plan must develop realistic goals and strategies that address perceived hindrances and obstacles to change in your district. It must also identify the parties held accountable to execute the strategies and explicitly allocate the operating or capital resources required by those strategies. Now we have a roadmap, an operational plan.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at gmeeks@meeksgeeks.com.

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