How Strategic Planning and Organizational Development is Done by Every School . . . Every Year [Part II of II]

An Introduction to Successful School-based Strategic Planning Science-to-Practice

Dear Colleagues,


The Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act(ESEA/ESSA) requires every state department of education to oversee and evaluate the school improvement processes for at least 5% of their lowest performing schools.  Moreover, these State Education Agencies (SEA)—ESEA/ESSA’s term for any state department of education—must provide guidance to the districts involved so that the schools in improvement status have at least one evidence-based intervention in their improvement plans.

But the State Departments of Education have a Dilemma:

We still have not identified science-to-practice approaches that match the “right” interventions to the root causes underlying a school’s under-performance.  In addition, we really have not identified many interventions that have consistently and predictably turned students’ academic performance around. 

Finally, most SEAs have focused on providing global “intervention menus”—rather than encouraging the functional assessments needed to explain exactly why a school’s students are not academically (and socially) succeeding.

In Part I of this two-part Blog series, we recommended that SEAs:

  • Require low performing districts and schools to use a scientifically-and-field-based-proven strategic planning process as their primary and firstevidence-based practice.

This will satisfy ESEA/ESSA’s evidence-based practice requirement, resulting in better decisions relative to the organizational, curricular, instructional, and multi-tiered systems of support practices (including strategic and intensive interventions) that are needed by a school relative to staff and student success.

In saying this, however, I want to emphasize the intent in using the scientifically-and-field-based-proven phrase above.

Educators must understand that there is an independent science of strategic planning and organizational development—that has identified scientific principles and practices that transcend different settings, situations, circumstances, and businesses. 

Thus, in order to maximize district and school improvement success, this science needs to be validly and differentially applied to the common and unique circumstances in specific educational settings by practitioners who have experience and a demonstrated track record of success in schools, districts, regional resource centers, and state departments of education.

For the past five years or more, the U.S. Department of Education has funded at least two Technical Assistance Centers focused on strategic planning, school improvement, and scaling-up science.  These Centers have tried to create their own strategic planning processes—often without integrating and applying the known and (pre-)existing science of strategic planning and organizational development.  Not surprisingly, their track records, especially at the state department of education level, are spotty at best.

Summarizing Part I to get to Part II

In Part I of this Blog, we reviewed two reports focusing on school improvement and ESEA/ESSA.  These reports were:

  • ESSA Leverage Points: 50-State Report on Promising Practices for Using Evidence to Improve Student Outcomes (January, 2018; Results for America).
  • Examples of Actions Taken by Principals Trying to Lead Turnaround (2017; The WestEd Center on School Turnaround).

This first report analyzed the ESEA/ESSA Consolidated State Plans that have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education over the past 10 months—from every state department of education in the country—in the area of school improvement for low performing schools.

Specific to the process of strategic planning and organizational development, two findings were notable:

  • Only seven states (DE, IN, IA, MN, OH, OK, and TN) prioritized high-quality needs assessments as a key component of the school improvement process.
  • Just nine states emphasized the use of evidence and continuous improvement in the design of their school improvement applications.

   The second report identified a number of common strategic planning and organizational assessment actions, but it did not identify:

  • How to link the results of an organizational assessment (at the district, school, staff, and student levels) with the actions discussed; and
  • How to objectively and empirically prioritize the problematic characteristics or conditions in a specific district or school such that certain actions are more advantageous and predictive of improvement success.

It did not do this because, in essence, that would be indefensible.

Indeed, Carlas McCauley, the Director for School Turnaround at WestEd, the group that published this report recently said in an Education Weekarticle:

States, meanwhile, are still sorting through exactly what their role will be (in ESEA/ESSA) when it comes to helping districts and schools pick improvement strategies and supporting them through the process.  They could, for instance, decide to come up with a list of approved strategies and providers for districts to choose from, although that’s not a must.
But state officials interested in taking that step might not have many options to put on those lists—at least at first.  There’s just not much out there when it comes to turnaround strategies with a clear track record of fixing the lowest-performing schools.

To expand on this point, it is notable that ESEA/ESSA defines “evidence-based practice” by outlining a research-based system that categorizes interventions as having “Strong evidence,” “Moderate evidence,” or “Promising evidence.”

And yet, to a large degree, these distinctions are virtually meaningless given the following.  Specifically. . . another recent Education Week article on school improvement noted:

While the federal What Works Clearinghouse has reviewed more than 10,000 studies on various interventions, a forthcoming meta-analysis based on the clearinghouse’s reviews found only 29 different interventions showed significant effects—and the average effect was small, particularly when the interventions were in messy real-school contexts instead of highly controlled laboratory settings.

And so, a major fear with this second Report (and, in general) is that districts or schools might simply pick one or more actions from its menu of school improvement clusters. . . without linking them to the results of a systematic and effective needs and root cause assessment, resource and capacity analysis, and strategic planning process.

Indeed, when districts or schools choose school improvement strategies based on:

  • Their perceptions of what the problem is, or what might work;
  • The preferences of staff (or others);
  • The testimony (endorsements, or marketing) of others;
  • The ease of implementation;
  • The resources (or lack thereof) available; and/or
  • What worked elsewhere. . .

the likely result will be continued failure, increased frustration, and perhaps, a more serious or convoluted problem.

It is because of all of these concerns that this Blog Part II will provide a science-to-practice introduction to strategic planning and organizational development.

This introduction is based on my work in thousands of schools across the country with Project ACHIEVE, our evidence-based (as cited on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices—NREPP).  Project ACHIEVE was the U.S. Department of Education-approved school improvement process for the Arkansas Department of Education for all Focus Improvement Status schools in the state during the NCLB Waiver/Flexibility years of the Obama administration.

The Strategic Planning Areas in Continuous School Improvement

Strategic planning, organizational development, and progressive school improvement involves ongoing, interdependent, scaffolded, and articulated processes that have specific stages distributed across the school year.  Often tied to districts’ annual budget cycles, effective strategic planning and school improvement focus on the staff and skills, materials and resources, instruction and intervention, and formative and summative evaluations needed to educate a diverse and often complex student body. 

At a functional level, most districts and schools need to set annual strategic goals and school improvement activities in the following areas:

  • Organizational development—including resource mapping and development, capacity-building and sustainability, and systems-level support to schools, staff, and students
  • Effective school and schooling—including the use of scientifically- or research-based practices at the administrative, curriculum and instruction, progress monitoring and evaluation, and multi-tiered (i.e., prevention, strategic intervention, and intensive need) service and support levels
  • Professional development and staff evaluation—including supervision and mentoring, and teacher/educator effectiveness, accountability, and evaluation
  • Multi-tiered academic instruction, assessment, and intervention— including positive academic supports and services
  • Multi-tiered positive behavioral support systems—including attention to school safety, school and classroom climate, effective classroom management, and student health, mental health, and wellness
  • Multi-tiered systems of support—including problem-solving teams, consultation processes, and data-based functional and diagnostic assessments leading to effective instructional modifications and/or academic/behavioral interventions
  • Parent and community outreach and involvement—including needs assessments, training, support, capacity-building, advocacy, and the braiding of school and community services and supports
  • Data management, evaluation, and accountability—including the formative and summative tracking of system, school, staff, and student outcomes

All of this planning is operationalized in a school’s annual School Improvement Plan—a detailed plan that should outline student, staff, and school goals, objectives, activities, and outcomes, respectively. 

When crafting these Plans, it is essential that school leaders focus on the preventive services, supports, strategies, and programs that most strongly predict and result in students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning and success.  This occurs best when schools adopt and practice effective shared leadership approaches that involve collaborations among teachers, support staff, related service specialists, administrators, and others at the district level. 

When sound preventive practices are implemented with fidelity, more students are successful, and fewer students need individual assessments and multi-tiered strategic or intensive services or supports.

At the same time, comprehensive School Improvement Plans also must explicitly address the multi-tiered services, supports, programs, and strategies that students need at the strategic and intensive/crisis management levels . . . in both academic and social, emotional, and behavioral areas.

This is a frequent, significant gap in most Plans. 

Indeed, in a figurative sense:  While it’s important to prevent a crisis, it’s just as important to know the early warning signs and how to respond to an impending crisis, while also having plans and resources to address a crisis if it actually occurs.

Key Past Lessons in Strategic Planning

What many in education are not aware of is that strategic planning is a well-researched and established independent and scientific endeavor.  That is, the science of strategic planning exists as a generic “body of work” that is then applied to a specific discipline.  Moreover, decades of research in strategic planning—combined with research in organizational, group process, social, and other areas of psychology—have established a core set of successful principles, practices, and approaches. 

And it is these core principles, practices, and approaches that are applied to (once again) specific fields or disciplines—for example, business, government, social services, and education.

From a historical perspective, it is important to revisit the work of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  In the early 1990s (over 25 years ago), this Foundation sponsored a five-year, five community New Futures grant initiative to prepare disadvantaged urban youth for successful lives as adults.  After investing an average of $10 million in each community, the Foundation evaluated the implementation and planned change process so that future initiatives would be more efficient and effective. 

In the end, the key lesson was that, in the low-income communities involved, systems-level initiatives, by themselves, could not transform poor educational, school, and health outcomes for vulnerable children and families.  That is, institutional change was not enough.  The change process required a comprehensive and strategically-planned and implemented home, school, and community collaboration that included social-capital and other economic-development initiatives targeting entire low-income neighborhoods. 

Among the other lessons described in this Report were the following:

  1. Comprehensive reforms are very difficult and involve, at times, the path of most resistance.
  2. Comprehensive reform requires advanced and ongoing efforts to build constituencies that are committed to long-term efforts, to strategic planning, and to the development of systems that can sustain the change process over time and through changes in leadership.
  3. Comprehensive reform efforts must be planned, public, realistic, and shared; and they need core leadership, management systems and skills, conviction and momentum, and credibility and legitimacy to have any hope of success.
  4. Comprehensive reform requires a blend of outside technical assistance and local commitment, leadership, planning, funding, and evaluation that results in local ownership and self-renewal.
  5. Comprehensive reform requires repair, revision, reassessment, and recommitment. Significant modification should not be interpreted as a sign of failure.
  6. Comprehensive reform often requires the development of entirely new systems and ways of being. The alteration of existing systems or the implementation of new systems built alongside old systems often will not lead to real change and enduring outcomes.

Key Present Lessons to Guide Strategic Planning

As a pragmatic first step in applying strategic planning to school improvement, schools need to continuously consider six fundamental questions throughout their outcome-based improvement journey.  These questions recognize both the systemic nature and the student-centered focus of school improvement.

The Six Fundamental Questions are:

1. How do we design and deliver an evidence-based academic and instruction system that successfully addresses the differentiated needs of all students while improving their rates of learning such that they progress through the grade levels and graduate from high school with the applied skills needed for college and/or career success?

2. How do we create a functional assessment and progress monitoring continuum that is curriculum-based, that can track students’ learning and mastery over time, while also guiding the development of successful, strategic or intensive interventions when students do not respond to effective instruction?

3. How do we design and deliver an evidence-based school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management (or positive behavioral support system) that increases all students’ interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills; that creates safe and connected classroom and school environments; and that maximizes students’ motivation and their academic engagement, independence, and confidence?

4. How do we create functional assessment and progress monitoring approaches to track students’ social, emotional, and behavioral learning, progress, and mastery that are ecologically-based and culturally-sensitive; that can evaluate student, classroom, and school outcomes; that can facilitate the development of successful strategic and/or intensive interventions when students do not respond?

5. How do we increase our parent outreach and involvement so that all parents are motivated, capable, and involved in activities that support and reinforce the education of all students? 

To complement this, how do we increase our community outreach and involvement so that real interagency and community collaboration occurs—resulting in effective, efficient, and integrated services to all students at needed prevention, strategic intervention, and intensive service levels?

6. Finally, how do we design and deliver these activities as an integrated, unified educational system through a strategic planning and organizational development process that braids data-based functional assessment and problem-solving to guide decision-making with ongoing formative and summative evaluation? 

Moreover, how do we institutionalize this process such that it becomes self-generating, self-replicating, and responsive to current and future student, staff, and school needs?

All of these questions, and the targets embedded in them, are essential to a school’s continuous, progressive improvement and, ultimately, its students’ success.  But the improvement and strategic planning process takes more than evidence-based approaches.  These approaches must be complemented by the professional and interpersonal interactions that support every staff member. . . from day-to-day, week-to-week, quarter-to-quarter, and year-to-year. 

The Strategic Planning Process and Its Phases and Activities

Strategic planning is a continuous, systematic process that helps schools and districts identify, plan, prepare for, execute, and evaluate their short- (i.e., annual) and long-term (i.e., three or five year) goals, activities, and explicit outcomes. 

Designed to attain these short- and long-term outcomes, strategic planning also results in actions that are:

  • Consistent with the school’s vision, mission, and needs of its students and staff;
  • Reflective of the school (and community’s) strengths and assets, weaknesses and limitations, opportunities and resources, and threats and barriers;
  • Focused on strengthening the school’s organizational capacity and resources while increasing effective and efficient staff collaboration and leadership;
  • Committed to fiscal and technological integrity; and
  • Unapologetic in emphasizing data-based decision-making, the use of scientifically- or research-based approaches and practices, and staff accountability and consistency. 

Typically, a school’s strategic planning process is chronologically aligned with the district’s budgeting cycle.  Working backwards, most districts begin their fiscal year on July 1st, and the school board often passes the annual budget by the end of May (at the latest).  Thus, schools in the district must submit their strategic plans and budgets to the superintendent by the end of February (at the latest) so that all requests can be analyzed, approved, and then integrated into the district’s comprehensive plan and budget by April.  This means that schools must begin their individual strategic planning processes by December at the latest. 

Once the school board passes the budget, each school then needs to revisit its School Improvement Plan—adjusting and finalizing all goals and activities based on the now-approved district and school priorities, and the funds and other resources provided.

The Five Strategic Planning Phases.  In the context of organizational change and continuous improvement, strategic planning can be organized in five phases at the school level. 

[The recommended activities within each phase are briefly identified below.  I am happy to have more-personalized discussions about these phases and activities for those who contact me.]

During Phase 1 (Assessing Organizational Readiness/Needs Assessments and Audits), the following primary activities typically occur:

A. The School Leadership Team is established (or reconfirmed); and it organizes the strategic planning process

B. The motivational readiness of the school for strategic planning and implementation is evaluated

C. The organizational readiness of the school for strategic planning and implementation is evaluated

D. Community stakeholders and other important constituent groups are involved

E. Internal (District, School, Staff, Student) current status and trend analyses, needs assessments, internal organizational scan/ SWOT analyses, and personnel and resource analyses are completed

F. An external (Community, Regional, State, National) environment scan and analysis is completed

During Phase 2 (Writing the School Improvement Plan) of the strategic planning process, the following primary activities typically occur:

A. The School Improvement Plan is written based on the Phase 1 results       

B. The School Improvement Plan is checked for its consistency with the school’s vision and mission statements

C. The School Improvement Plan is submitted to the Superintendent and is integrated into the district’s budgeting and strategic planning process (typically by the end of February)      

During Phase 3 (Establishing the Infrastructure to Implement the Plan), the following primary activities typically occur:

A. The school builds (or continues to build) its resources and capacity in preparation for School Improvement Plan implementation (beginning at least by May or June)

B. The school completes a year-end Consultation Referral Audit

C. The school completes a year-end Get-Go process to share and apply (especially relative to differentiated instruction) “lessons learned” to the new school year     

D. The school and its committees complete other end-of-year articulation activities to prepare for the transition to the next school year 

During Phase 4 (Implementing, Monitoring, and Evaluating the Plan), the following primary activities typically occur:

A. The School Improvement Plan is implemented at the beginning of the new school year (or during the planning days immediately before the beginning of school)      

B. Individual teacher Professional Development Plans are written and approved, and they are evaluated biannually     

C. Progress in the different areas of the School Improvement Plan are evaluated at the school, committee, staff, grade, classroom, and student levels     

D. The School Improvement Plan is formally evaluated at the end of the first six weeks of the school year, and then on a quarterly basis (typically the end of October and during January)

E. The January evaluation re-initiates the strategic planning process relative to the relevant activities needed in Phases 1 and 2        

During Phase 5 (Reviewing, Retooling, and Renewing the Plan), the following primary activities typically occur:

A. A summative evaluation of all areas of the School Improvement Plan is completed (typically in April)

B. This evaluation and review process eventually leads back to the relevant activities in Phases 2 and 3

While I have worked with well over a thousand districts or schools in implementing these Phases and Activities, it is critical to note that the outline above is just a blueprint or roadmap.  During actual implementation, the current status of the school—largely determined by the Phase 1 Needs Assessments and Audits—guides the depth, breadth, and sequencing of the different activities.

Thus, there is a “science-and-art” in applying strategic planning and these different Phases and Activities.  The ultimate success is a collaborative process.  But there is no substitute for experience.


As transformational leaders, all educators are in the business of school improvement.  While teachers and support staff are focusing on student improvement. . . Building administrators and supervisors are focusing on staff improvement. . . and, district administrators are focusing on school improvement.

And this improvement is contextual.  Some schools want to go from “great to greater.”  Some schools from “good to great.”  And some schools from “targeted or comprehensive external support” to a level of “good” independent success.

Thus, in order for school improvement and turn-around to succeed, it needs to be done at each involved school and district site using intensive and sustained activities that include: 

  • Ongoing local needs assessment and strategic planning science-to-practice processes;
  • Local resource analysis and capacity-strengthening science-to-practice processes; and
  • Local and on-site organizational, staff development, consultation, and technical assistance science-to-practice processes

The Key to these processes are the professionals (both at the site and involved as consultants), and their ability to use sound strategic planning processes to select the best services, supports, strategies, and interventions at the district, school, staff, and student levels to facilitate ongoing and sustained success—at all of those levels.

As districts and schools do the challenging work of school improvement, and as they engage in their current strategic planning processes, I hope that a re-emphasis on the science-to-practice principles and practices will increase your success. . . especially as this process necessarily evolves in the next months leading up to the 2018-2019 school year.

While we all devote our full and undivided effort every day to improve system, school, and staff processes on behalf of our students. . . we all also need to be “students of strategic planning” to ensure that those efforts are maximizing their outcomes.

I hope that this two-part Blog series on strategic planning has generated both interest in and questions about this process—especially as our state departments of education move toward finalizing their respective processes on behalf of our districts and schools nationwide.

Please get involved in these state discussions, and help our departments of education—once again—to recognize that:

  • There are very few foolproof evidence-based practices currently available for immediate implementation in our schools;
  • Simply providing “menus” of these practices—in the absence of strategic planning and root cause analyses—is NOT its own evidence-based practice;
  • The first and best evidence-based practice is a strategic planning process that is based on the existing science that is then applied to educational settings;
  • We must be wary of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Technical Assistance Centers and their “school improvement” approaches— especially given their spotty track records of implementation and success; and
  • Strategic planning and organizational development is a local activity and process. . . and departments of education need to follow ESEA/ESSA’s allowances, letting this process be as autonomous as possible.

If you would like to continue this discussion on a more personal level, I am always available by e-mail.  If your Leadership or Strategic Planning Team would benefit from a free one-hour conference call with me, let’s set it up as soon as possible.