Effective people in all walks of life (including education) not only have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, they think strategically about the means to reach their goals. Unfortunately, because most educators are extraordinarily busy and because conventional planning focuses so often on short-term actions, strategy often gets neglected. Given a full plate of multiple initiatives; staff, student, and parent demands; and the inevitable crisis du jour, it is not surprising that thoughtful strategizing frequently gives way to reactive, knee-jerk responses or to impulsive calls for action. Even without immediate pressures, action-oriented educators tend to identify a goal and quickly propose actions, often with no mechanism for critiquing the validity of the action or adjusting it when necessary. Although we doubt that the pace of schooling will lessen, we do believe in the power of strategic thinking to focus our energies and actions. To have a strategy is to go from some sort of aim to planned and committed action. “The statement ‘This is what we are here for,’ must eventually become the statement ‘This is how we do it. This is the time span in which we do it. This is who is accountable. This is, in other words, the work for which we are responsible’” (Drucker, 1990, p. 142).
When we are working directly with staff or colleagues based on our strategy, we employ various tactics to honor strategy and achieve our long-term goals, such as the tactic of organizing a study group around Understanding by Design to increase staff understanding of high-quality unit planning. An individual action in a study group might be to appoint Sue as the leader of the study group, based on our sense of her talents and the respect others have for her. The individual action may fail, but the study group may eventually succeed; the study group may not change a majority of staff methods, yet the strategy may be sound. The strategy, of course, is to make people dissatisfied with their current habits and aware of better ones tied to mission and accountability.
So, just as it is useful in the military, sports, or contract negotiations to differentiate between a strategy, a tactic, and an individual action, these distinctions are important in school reform. This is especially the case because educational leaders have an unfortunate temptation to grab at short-term tactics and prescriptions—professional learning communities, authentic assessment, curriculum mapping—without having an overall strategy that justifies the choice or permits leadership to judge whether the tactic is working to achieve longer-term goals of reform. We believe it helpful to see school reform as failing in recent decades not because the tactics were inherently flawed but because there has been no local, coherent, long-term strategy to plan effectively, validly select and coordinate tactics, and react quickly and decisively, mindful of strategy and goals.
Strategies and Tactics for Reform
The word strategy has military roots (it derives from the Greek word for general), though it is now more broadly applied in athletics, politics, and corporate planning—the latter all being more civilized versions of warfare. If the military connotation is distasteful, focus on the broader definition, found in the Oxford English Dictionary:
the “art of developing the larger movements and operations of a campaign.” Strategy is distinct from tactics, the “art of handling forces in battle.” Drucker's (1990) change of heart in adopting these terms when talking about change in nonprofit organizations is instructive:
I was once opposed to the term ‘strategy.’ I thought it smacked too much of the military. But I have slowly become a convert. That's because in many . . . nonprofit organizations, planning is an intellectual exercise. You put it in a nicely-bound volume on your shelf and leave it there. Everybody feels virtuous: we have done the planning. But until it becomes actual work you have done nothing. Strategies, on the other hand, are action-focused. . . . [S]trategies are not something you hope for; strategies are something you work for. (p. 59)
Strategy tells us how to organize staff, use resources, and act in the face of all the specific decision points and obstacles ahead. From a broad strategy comes a “game plan,” involving tactics to move us toward our desired long-term goal (e.g., training staff to become competent in Understanding by Design, making the grading and reporting system reflect mission-related goals). Finally, we take specific actions that flow from the strategy and tactics.
So then, what is strategy as it relates to school reform? It answers this question: What are the best principles for determining short-term reform decision-making in order to engineer the long-term result of mission accomplished? A strategy is an overarching imperative to avoid getting lost in the details or the inevitable setbacks. For example, in this book we are arguing that a key strategy for honoring mission in schooling is to write curriculum differently so as to focus everyone on understanding and transfer. That strategy, if followed, will permit everyone in school to better understand their job and how their daily work and obligations fit with long-term aims. The strategy can be simply and broadly defined as root out inconsistency and illogical habit, given mission and what it implies.
A strategy is thus not an abstract idea; it is a proactive and sustained way to keep mission in view and make it happen. As Drucker (1990) put it, “There is an old saying that good intentions don't move mountains; bulldozers do. In nonprofit management, the mission and the plan—if that's all there is—are the good intentions. Strategies are the bulldozers. They convert what you want to do into accomplishments . . . they tell you what you need to have by way of resources and people to get results” (p. 59). A strategy is a specific and public commitment to marshal political, material, and human capital in a coordinated way to achieve an end to which we have obligated ourselves.
Here is a simple illustration of these distinctions related to coaching soccer. Soccer at the middle school level and beyond is typically a low-scoring affair, and of the few goals that are scored, many are scored as a result of crucial errors in coverage or misplays by the defense. So my strategy as a youth soccer coach was to concentrate on defense. From the kids' perspective, the strategy was summarized as:
minimize mistakes on defense by forcing the offense outside and always covering for one another. With this strategy in mind, our practices concentrated more time on defense than offense and we worked hard to ensure that each of our defenders always had back-up on the field, understood positioning to minimize penetration by the other team, knew how to fake a move to get the opposing player to commit first, and could quickly and decisively clear the ball from the most dangerous areas. The strategy demanded that some of my best and fastest players were used on defense, not offense. Tactically, the strategy calls for putting at least four players in the back, always closing off space in the center of the field, and willingly giving up space on the sidelines. This set of ideas, plus a few other tactics and moves related to slowing down the offense, was the gist of our approach, because the game is too fluid to be scripted. During practices, drills and feedback during controlled scrimmaging reinforced the tactics and overall strategy in gamelike situations; we rarely did isolated sideline drills that were unrealistic. Game plans were never set in stone, though strategy was; instead, they flexed to accommodate what was working and what wasn't. The team was successful—we won the league once and came in second another year, while giving up the fewest goals. These achievements were notable because our team did not have the most talented players in the league.
Consider four transferable points from this example: (1) always have a priority strategy from which all individual decisions and specific actions flow—a strategy that is powerful yet clear and transparent enough to guide everyone's thinking; (2) always play to your strengths by putting your best people in the most vital positions and marginalize your weakest in light of your goals and strategies; (3) make clear that executive control rests with the players (e.g., the staff, workers, learners) who must be encouraged to and educated in how to “plan to adjust” based on feedback and a few strategic principles; and (4) minimize unhelpful drills (simplistic activities, divorced from mission) and maximize gamelike situations (e.g., constant challenges and problem solving related to mission) so that players learn to apply their skills and strategic thinking in authentic contexts. In sum, you cannot win without a strategy that is sound and fully understandable, and capable of being enacted by the players, not the coach. Personnel must be prepared to adjust, not just thoughtlessly execute, based on understanding how strategy makes long-term aims practical, because surprises, impediments, dilemmas, and inadequate resources on the way to the goal are inevitable.
Strategic Principles for Accomplishing Mission
We noted in earlier chapters that schooling needs to be conceived like architecture. A vision is needed, but it isn't sufficient. A blueprint is a necessary document for turning vision into possibilities and strategic (i.e., focused, effective, and coordinated) action. So, too, with the process of reform. Instead of jumping headlong into arbitrary moves and tactics, we propose a strategy for systematic planning and implementation of coherent reform. We propose that any school reform, no matter what the particulars, has to be founded on three principles: (1) plan backward from mission and program goals by carefully analyzing what mission demands, (2) confront and close the gap between the vision and reality, and (3) set in place from the start a plan to adjust the plan (i.e., plan to adjust). Let's consider each idea briefly, then follow up in more detail.
Plan backward from “mission accomplished.” This is just common sense and in harmony with the definition of strategy. A strategy is devised by thinking backward from victory (mission accomplished), from successful reform—while mindful of our current situation and resources (both human and material). If backward design works well for curriculum design, then it should work for the design of schooling. It is, after all, a general approach to good planning and acting, irrespective of the content. Indeed, this book follows the backward design logic. Recall that we began by examining the nature of school mission and then described the curriculum and assessment system, because our aim is unachievable without a set of coherently planned actions for getting there. Next, we considered job descriptions, because effective teaching and effective leadership are meaningless phrases prone to endless disagreements without a clear mission and curriculum for attaining it.
Similarly, educational reform succeeds to the extent that we have a clear vision of what we are aiming for and a mechanism for assessing progress against our long-term goals. Great care has to be taken to develop a clear vision and indicators of what “mission accomplished” looks like to guide the development of a coherent and effective reform action plan.
Confront and continually work to close the gap between the vision and the reality. The engine of reform is the intrinsic incentive that comes from seeing where you are versus where you desire to end up. It is imperative that the change process focus on giving staff the challenge to develop models and indicators of mission accomplished while collecting credible and helpful information about where we stand against the desired results. Then, the reform charge is always to close the gap. Yet many educators actually resist facing up to an accurate and honest account of where we stand against what we are in business to accomplish. Any change strategy must also ensure that mechanisms and incentives for willingly—even enthusiastically—finding and exploring the gap are developed and acted upon as part of everyone's experience in school. Given that changing habits is difficult, we have to get the incentives right for adults as well as students.
Plan to adjust and have systems in place for proactively getting and using feedback to make timely and effective adjustments, early and often. No educator can predict the future and what obstacles will be encountered along the reform journey. Hence, establishing committees to adjust the plan based on timely feedback must be seen as a vital action, not a sign of weakness. We refer to this as the humility axiom: our initial plans are likely to be inadequate; we are likely to run into unanticipated troubles. What we need more than a great initial plan is a plan to adjust on a timely and effective basis.
That plan to adjust starts right at the beginning. We need a great deal of data even before we develop a strategic plan to check our hunches against reality about who is ready, willing, and able, and what the real needs and possibilities are in student achievement.
Let's now look more closely at each of these three principles for developing a feasible and successful reform strategy for schooling by design.
Applying Backward Design to School Reform
As we noted in describing the curriculum framework, backward design asks teachers and curriculum committees to consider the following three stages when planning.
Stage 1—Identify desired results. What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What content is worthy of understanding? What “enduring” understandings are desired? In short, what does mission require us to accomplish in student learning? In Stage 1 we consider our transfer and other learning goals. We frame a few priorities in the form of “understandings sought” and “essential questions” that should become learner habits of mind. We frame the knowledge and skill goals mindful of our obligations and prerequisites for achieving transfer related to mission. This first stage in the design process calls for clarity about priorities, expressed as achievements.
Stage 2—Determine acceptable evidence. How will we know if students have achieved the desired results? What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency? Backward design encourages planners to “think like an assessor” before designing specific lessons and activities. Thus we consider in advance
the assessment evidence needed to document and validate that the desired learning (identified in Stage 1) has been achieved.
Stage 3—Plan learning experiences and instruction. What enabling knowledge and skills will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results? What activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplishing our goals? With clearly identified results and appropriate evidence of understanding in mind, we now think through the most appropriate instructional activities. The goal is to make our teaching engaging and effective, while always keeping the end in mind.
In matters of schooling and reform, the logic of backward design suggests the same three-stage process, with only minor variations for reform planning.
Stage 1—Identify desired results. In Stage 1, change agents establish the aim of a particular reform, in terms of long-term mission and program goals. They identify more specific short-term goals and objectives related to the long-term aims. They ask the following questions: What do we want staff to understand, to really “own”? What essential questions do staff members have to confront, and work through, if the goal is to be achieved? What new knowledge and skills are required to effectively enact the desired reforms?
Stage 2—Determine acceptable evidence. In Stage 2, reformers are reminded to first “think like assessors” before designing specific action plans. The backward-design orientation suggests that we think carefully about the evidence we need to show that we have achieved the desired results.
This approach departs from the common practice of thinking about assessment and evaluation as something we do at the end, once our action planning is completed. Rather than creating an evaluation plan near the conclusion, backward design calls for us to develop a feedback plan right from the start based around the evidence and indicators related to our goals. This is vital because we need to plan
to make intelligent adjustments all along the way to achieve our goals. Only with clear and appropriate evidence in mind can we gauge our progress and know when we need to modify our actions. Waiting until the end to “see how (or if) it worked” is simply too late, as any effective coach or sponsor of extracurricular activities will attest.
Thus reformers need to ask the assessor's questions: How will we know if we have achieved the desired results? What will we see if we are successful? What will we accept as evidence of staff understanding and proficiency? What data do we need from the start to set a baseline in relationship to our goals—to measure the gap between goal and reality? How will we track our progress along the way? By what feedback system will we make timely adjustments to our plans to achieve our goals? These questions and their answers are key not only for making wise plans, but also for clarifying our understanding of the goals and learning principles.
Stage 3—Plan actions to achieve goals. With clearly identified results and appropriate evidence of our aims in mind, it is now the time to plan for action. Several key questions must be considered at this stage of backward design: What professional development activities and support will equip staff with the needed knowledge and skills to perform effectively and achieve desired results? Who is responsible for the various actions? What time schedule will we follow? What resources are needed to accomplish the goals? Is the overall plan coherent? It is important to note that the specifics of planning—choices about tactics and actions, sequence of activities, resources, and so on—should be decided only after we have identified desired results and specific evidence and after we have collected baseline data from which a sensible plan can be derived.
To help leaders apply backward design to school and district planning, we have developed a template for school reform, a variation of the backward-design curriculum-planning template (see Figure 8.1). The template contains questions to consider for each of the backward-design elements.
Figure 8.1. Backward-Design Template for School Reform
Stage 1—Desired Results
What is our vision for this reform? What do we want to accomplish as a result of this initiative?
What understandings and attitudes do teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, and others need for these goals to be met?
What essential questions about teaching, learning, results, and change should guide our improvement actions?
What knowledge and skills will teachers, administrators, policymakers, parents, and students need for this vision to become a reality?
Stage 2—Assessment Evidence
What will count as evidence of success?
What are the key observable indicators of short- and long-term progress?
What other data (e.g., achievement gaps; staff understandings, attitudes, and practices; organizational capacity) should be collected?
Stage 3—Action Plan
What short- and long-term actions will we take to achieve our goals (in curriculum, assessment, instruction, professional development, policy, resource allocation, and job appraisal)?
What strategies will help us achieve the desired results?
Who will be responsible? What resources will be needed?
What Makes Backward Design “Backward”?
Although backward design makes sense for planning, its logic is not always followed within the hectic operation of schools and districts. Yet failure by reformers to follow the precepts of backward design can result in variations on the “twin sins” of teacher planning we noted in Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). One sin may be labeled “activity orientation”—professional activities that fail to lead to goal-related results. We see this problem manifest on professional development days and at meetings, where staff dutifully participate but without a clear long-term purpose or targeted follow-up. (Is it any wonder that we often hear veteran staff lament, “This too shall pass,” because it often does?)
The second sin parallels the teaching sin of “coverage,” whereby staff members are “informed” about new policies, initiatives, or programs without ever having to act or be held accountable for implementation. They are merely told, “Here's what we're doing,” without being helped to understand the need, rationale, or long-term implications of an initiative or a program. (Is it surprising that staff often respond to mandated initiatives they do not fully understand with minimum-compliance behavior or passive-aggressive resistance?)
A related problem in school reform boils down to confusion between results and process. It is not uncommon to observe hardworking committees investing many hours in determining how decisions will be made, how inquiries will be conducted, how all constituencies will be heard, before first asking, “Toward what end?” What is the desired result, and how does that answer affect the process? If anything, it is “backward” to concentrate on the process before the end goal is agreed upon. That's like asking the contractor for a work plan before the blueprint.
Here's a large-scale example of this problem. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several states mandated a site-based decision-making process for all schools—without advising schools on the kinds of decisions they should make! More recently, Douglas Reeves (2006) conducted research on school improvement planning and discovered an inverse relationship between the complexity of the required format for the plan and student achievement! Reeves's comment on this finding echoes our own caution: “Planning can be effective and necessary, but when the plan supplants the purpose, the entire enterprise is misguided” (p. ix). The backward-design approach we advocate is meant to avoid these potential problems.
A Case in Point
Region 9 of the New York City Board of Education consists of more than 100 schools serving more than 100,000 students in the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx. Regional leaders recognize the value of planning backward and encourage their teachers to use the UbD process for instructional planning. In addition to classroom use, the process has proven valuable for leadership planning. The region has adopted the schooling-by-design template as the framework for school administrators to use in developing their annual school goals. After the first year of using backward design for developing school goals, Region 9 Local Assistant Superintendent Dr. Alan Dichter observed,
The [backward-design] approach helps us develop the habits we wish we had around planning and assessment, especially ensuring there is a connection between what we want and what we do. While this seems simplistic, experience tells us it's a bit elusive.
In addition to using backward design at the school level, regional office staff members use a version of the template to plan coordinated professional development within the region. This multileveled use of backward design reinforces its effectiveness across an entire system. Teachers will observe their school administrators walking the talk, and school administrators will see the same planning process being used by their regional leaders.
Closing the Gap Between Vision and Reality
As we have argued throughout the book, a fundamental reform strategy depends upon continually assessing and acting on the gap between vision and reality. If there is no vision, why think of changing? If there is no gap, why change? If the gap in question is not of interest or credible to me personally, why change? We presume that change, especially change of habits, is demanding and quite difficult. So the reasons to persist must be compelling, and support systems must be in place to keep us motivated and positive.
But as we have also previously argued, few educators willingly confront the discrepancy between action and belief of their own accord. Many resist or deny that a discrepancy exists. So it is naive to presume that merely knowing we can do better by kids will be sufficient motivation to change the habits of schooling. The research on human motivation suggests that the opposite is true: because changing our habits will be painful and difficult, with backsliding and resistance likely, we must ensure that we tap every intrinsic and extrinsic motive possible through a well-thought-out incentive system. At the very least, we have to ponder the myriad disincentives
that exist in the current approach to school.
Planning to Adjust
In addition to using backward design, strategic reformers are encouraged to regularly assess progress toward closing the vision-reality gap and to adjust the plan when necessary. These related principles call for us to develop a feedback plan right from the start about the evidence and indicators related to our goals. This is vital because we need to plan to make intelligent adjustments all along the way to achieve our goals. Only with ongoing assessment evidence can we gauge our progress and know when we need to modify our actions.
This idea of ongoing assessment and adjustment is certainly not original to this book. Indeed, Walter Shewhart (1934) introduced the PDSA cycle of Plan, Do, Study, Act in the 1930s. Today, the Shewhart Cycle is cited as a harbinger for most contemporary approaches to quality control and continuous improvement popularized by Deming and others. The PDSA cycle is a simple but powerful (and somewhat counterintuitive) idea that suggests the logic of backward design. In Stage 3, we study the impact of our actions (Stage 2) to verify that they are having the desired effects and that we remain on course. If not, we amend our planned actions—we make midcourse corrections.
Athletic coaches naturally apply this cycle in every game and throughout the season. In addition to a carefully thought-out playbook in the preseason, they have a specific game plan for each opponent, based on results as the season unfolds. Despite the most carefully crafted game plans, adjustments are inevitable throughout the game itself. The coach plans but plans to adjust to respond to the inherently unpredictable. Success depends upon both thoughtful planning and timely and effective adjustments.
Thus, reform leaders need to help staff continually assess against the desired results. Feedback against goals—early and often—has to be the motto. Not because we “have to,” but because that is the best way to avoid self-deception, stagnancy, and a lack of success at achieving the mission.
How, then, can we use these principles to guide reform plans? To this question we now turn as we explore specific tactics and actions framed by the three stages of backward design.