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Our Approach to Strategic Planning in Education

By: Janice Vargo on February 13th, 2019

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Our Approach to Strategic Planning in Education

School Districts  |  Leadership

The year 2020 is shaping up to be a record year - Summer Olympics, a World Cup, a presidential election, and in the education world, the year many strategic plans expire. As districts gear up to write their next strategic plan, we have mixed feelings about the process. At best, the process provides an opportunity for district leaders to coalesce around a shared vision. At worst, the process consumes valuable hours and produces a document that does little to change individual behavior.

We think there’s a better way. In his book The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools, our CEO Anthony Kim writes:

U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” If “better student outcomes” is our shared mantra as educators, we need to stick vigilantly to that purpose as our guiding principle and direction, not the plans we make to get us there. We need to approach planning as a way of thinking, not a set “product” or “plan” that has value in and of itself.

At Education Elements, we challenge our district partners to focus more on the planning process rather than a static plan as the end goal. Why? By focusing the planning processes, districts are better able to:

  • deepen their awareness of stakeholder needs
  • build coherence across departmental initiatives
  • build knowledge of leading practices
  • prioritize efforts to maximize value for their students
  • design structures to plan ahead and adapt
  • define success metrics that build to overall KPIs

Our approach to strategic planning rests on the following three principles.

Principle #1 - Responsive Planning

Just like sports teams hold practices before games, a responsive planning process offers a valuable opportunity for district teams to practice working together. The most effective teams have developed a deep sense of trust. Districts should not wait until after the strategic plan is published to develop effective project management structures, monitoring systems, and processes for team learning. We believe that during the strategic planning process, district teams should start building habits and ways of working together that will carry forward into the implementation of the plan. Try out our Planning Workout 1A: Build Your Skills to Plan Using Known and Anticipated Data and our Planning Workout 1B: Build Your Skills To Think In “Planning,” Not “Plans”.

Principle #2 - Responsive Engagement

Too often districts treat stakeholder engagement processes as a one-way street -- focused solely on gathering community input. We believe the strategic planning process offers an excellent opportunity to educate stakeholders about why this planning process is different and what it means for each person. Districts must create urgency and identify the impact for the the community. The stakeholder engagement process should build knowledge and excitement; teach the community about why we are doing strategic planning differently; and enable the district to collect data and feedback from the community about successes and challenges from the previous strategic planning round.

Principle #3 - Responsive Implementation

We’ve seen too many strategic plans that include specific actions that are supposed to take place three or four years in the future. It’s impossible to know if those will be the right steps to take given ever-changing conditions. Instead, we believe that a strategic plan should identify major themes and goals for each year, but focus more effort on developing a rigorous methodology that will give district leaders more accurate information in order to make better planning canvases.

For more information on the Education Elements approach to planning:

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Interested in learning more about strategic planning, responsive practices, and innovative leadership - and collaborating with education leaders and thinkers from across the country while you're at it? Join us at the Personalized Learning Summit May 14-16, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia! Tickets are selling fast.

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About Janice Vargo

Janice is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team at Education Elements. She has supported a diverse group of districts in their personalized learning journey. Prior to Education Elements, Janice was a Senior Consultant for UPD Consulting where she supported state education agencies, K-12 school districts, and nonprofits on a variety of policy and technology projects. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame.

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