Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
October 11, 2022
Online Exclusive

No More Vague School Action Plans!

author avatar
For true change to take place in our schools, school leaders need to focus on what they can change—and how to go about doing it.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Leadership
No More Vague School Action Plans! - Header
Credit: Cagkan Sayin / Shutterstock
When I was an elementary school principal, the required state-level action planning process drove me nuts. Every year, we had to submit a pile of student performance data to an online system, analyze the root cause of student performance issues, figure out what to build on, and create a plan to fix what was broken. It felt like a waste of time to follow such a scripted, controlled data collection and analysis process with our teachers and parent representatives, only to arrive at the same conclusions every year. Wasn’t it evident that our underperforming children were struggling because of poverty, racism, family disorganization or trauma, or many other things over which we had no control?  
Not only was I wrong about action planning being a waste of time, but I realize now that I was also perpetuating systems of inequity in my school. I’d been looking at the state’s highly detailed, multistep root-cause analysis and action planning process as something to “check off” my to-do list. I used the more significant societal issues as an excuse not to take this arduous process seriously.  

Action plans, when done right, can be targeted, specific ways to create resources, pathways, and strategies for students at risk of failure.

Author Image

I didn’t understand then that action planning can challenge an organization to recognize what it can control instead of what it can’t. Action plans, when done right, can be targeted, specific ways to create resources, pathways, and strategies for students at risk of failure. You cannot be vague when creating plans to smooth out instructional bumps that trip up learning. These bumps are often a complex matrix of factors that can take years to unpack, understand, and address through learning, analysis, study, and action. They include instructional techniques, how students are (or aren’t) engaged, how we do (or don’t) give quality feedback, and how we hold (or don’t hold) students to high expectations. It’s easy to blame; it’s hard to look for specific actions.

What Vague Plans Offer 

The state’s action planning process offered a robust roadmap for precise planning, but I wasn’t using it that way. I was just checking boxes and thus creating vague plans. Vague plans frequently unfold like this:  
  • The “Ra-Ra Welcome.” The principal establishes a “theme” for the school year, loosely linked to something from recent performance data. One year, for example, I decided the theme was going to be “diving into the pit,” which was a metaphor for diving into the unknown where we “mine” data to find our way out. For the staff welcome video, I dressed up like a miner and dug a hole in the dirt outside the school. I can only imagine the puzzled looks on teachers’ faces when they watched it. Since this time, I’ve realized that offering clever themes for the year can distract from attending to the required precision of the actual work. “Diving into the pit,” for example, without detailed definitions of each part of that statement, can mean entirely different things to different educators.  
  • The Kickoff. Next, a school leader schedules a big staff meeting with a lot of cited research and a fuzzy focus for professional learning communities. Staff complete a chart paper activity about the new theme and related initiatives. There may not be deadlines, support systems, or meaningful professional development. There may be no budget to support any of these activities. One year, I wrote a plan saying, “All teachers will complete the Science of Reading training required by the state. Primary grades will work on developing their understanding of phonemic awareness, and intermediate grades will focus on developing techniques for improving students’ close reading skills.” This ultimately frustrated teachers because it assumed they understood the difference between current practice and the “Science of Reading” and were excited about going in this direction. The vague plan also did little to clarify this on a day-to-day basis.   
  • The Great Decay of Magic to “Meh.” Throughout the year, the school holds lecture-based professional development, shares videos, discusses professional reading, etc. The staff typically loses energy; the enthusiasm fades; and confusion, stress, and workload builds. When there is little clarity in the action plan, everything begins to feel like a priority. Teachers are a highly committed bunch who tend to never allow anything to slide off their plates if they feel it will negatively impact children. Vague action plans erode the urgency to attend only to the collective agreements.  
These vague plans fail because without a robust, inclusive, detailed planning process, we diffuse a lot of precious energy. The absence of clarity and specifics in an action plan leaves faculty members wondering what to do next every day and all school year. Vagueness is exhausting and frustrating for teachers and staff of any organization.

The Gift of Clarity 

For me, the change began when I started using a biannual leadership survey to gather input on my leadership skills. Two teachers wrote the following: 
“We would benefit from focusing on one goal/area at a time. We are constantly changing or working toward multiple goals across subject areas. Being spread so thin makes it challenging to elicit authentic, meaningful change.” 
“I want to leave meetings with new ideas and action plans stewing in my head. I want to share what I'm learning with others to receive feedback, and I want the opportunity to learn from my coworkers.”
These comments let me know that our vague action plan was not providing the necessary gift of clarity to these thoughtful and insightful teachers. At about the same time, the state flagged my school again for ongoing flat scores. It was beginning to dawn on me: My skills for building clarity were lagging. 
The state offered me technical assistance to address our performance. For the first time, rather than dismissing this offer, I decided it was an opportunity. So, I called the Department of Education technical assistance advisor who’d reached out to me. I was immediately surprised and inspired by her tone and approach. “This is a wonderful opportunity for you and your team,” she started.  From there, she began to describe simple, research-based steps we could take to become “collaboratively curious.” She was not focused on our deficits, I realized. She was modeling how to become excited about what we might all learn together! I booked a meeting with her and, again, her enthusiasm for coaching impressed me when she offered to drive 80 miles to meet me in a coffee shop.  
During our first meeting together, I expressed my ongoing frustration about being unable to increase the scores of my students at risk of failure. She sipped her coffee, thought for a moment, and sat back in her chair. 
“Chris, your plan starts out great but never gets to the level of precision that would help teachers know what to do next. How can you plan to engage them in discovering the impact of a well-aligned curriculum on students in poverty? And just as importantly, what are the steps that make it clear to teachers how to accomplish this?” 

Closing learning gaps takes precision and flexibility. Action planning is about creating the instructional clarity necessary to meet the needs of every single child.

Author Image

In other words, she went on to explain, it’s not enough to blame flat scores on a lack of standards alignment. If a teacher does not have an easy way to know the next best instructional step for a child, aligned to the standard, the instruction may become too vague to have impact. Closing learning gaps takes precision and flexibility.   
Click. She’d made the connection for me. Action planning is about creating the instructional clarity necessary to meet the needs of every single child. Vague action plans lead to vague, unaligned teacher planning, collaboration, and reflection. This leads to vague instruction for the children who require precision.

Two Approaches to Planning 

I recognized the way I’d been leading improvement planning was fundamentally different from what action planning actually is. The following example illustrates that difference: 
Imagine that a group of teachers and their principal just completed instructional rounds (observations of classrooms). The focus was to measure the level of engagement of students. Some team members notice that the low-performing students were typically among the least engaged. 

1. The Vague Planning Approach

Some teachers suggest that a root cause might be uninspiring instruction, while others suggest “implicit bias.” The team discusses how to help teachers know when lessons are not reaching every student. Then, someone suggests a book study about how to teach more “zestfully” as a simple way forward. When I was a young principal, I actually did something like this. Within the first month of school, after reading the first chapter of a book on teaching in ways that create “shining eyes,” everyone was looking for “shining eyes” in their students. By March, the magic had decayed to “meh” and any “shining eyes” were mostly caused by pervasive classroom yawning. More zestful teaching, using existing strategies, may be more entertaining, but for children who require a new type of instructional precision, it lacks the impact it might otherwise have.  2

2. The Effective Action Planning Approach

A hypothesis is formed: Students will learn more in a language-rich, interactive classroom. In their plan, the teachers set the following goal: “Students observed in classroom dialoguing sessions will be actively engaged 85 percent of the time.” After more observations, data collection, and conversations about their hypothesis, the teachers in this school identify one action step to ensure full engagement, such as learning and applying specific instructional strategies from John Seidlitz and Bill Perryman’s book, Seven Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom. For their action plan, they define what this would look like: “When observed by a peer, coach, or the principal, at least 85 percent of observed students will be primarily using high-engagement strategies, such as turn and talk, writing before speaking, or using table roles to offer collective response to the larger group.” The use of individual student responses, by calling on raised hands, will decrease dramatically. This ensures more children are engaged in discourse, thinking, and response. The teachers set a deadline of December to learn three high-engagement strategies and beginning of May to learn seven strategies. From here, the team writes a monthly sequence of steps and a system for revisiting their progress as a team. 
For example, “By October 1, all certified staff will have learned, practiced, and observed a teammate using Seidlitz and Perryman’s Randomizing and Rotating strategy for engaging student dialogue. By November 1, all certified staff will have learned, practiced, and observed a teammate requiring students to respond in complete sentences. Well before each deadline, the team plans a staff meeting dedicated to teaching this specific strategy with time for peer practice and reflection.  Everyone agrees that this action plan is essential, urgent, simple, and focused. 
In this action planning example, the team is identifying precise, high-impact strategies they want to learn, detailing how they will learn and practice them, and how they will hold each other accountable for embedding these new strategies in their daily work. This is a critical shift in helping others expand their thinking of what might be possible. 
Action planning in this way is essential. Without a deep understanding of a complete action-plan cycle, there isn’t a reliable way to unify colleagues around precise, tiny actions with huge impact. Students will always be impacted by poverty, discrimination, trauma, family disorganization, and mental illness. A specific, actionable, and targeted action plan can mitigate the effects these challenges have on learning by providing more customized in-school support. Strong action planning energizes people and transforms learning for every single child.
References

DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2014). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. (2nd ed.). Solution Tree. 

Seidlitz, J., & Perryman, B. (2011). 7 Steps to a language-rich interactive classroom: Research-based strategies for engaging all students. Seidlitz Education. 

Chris Briggs-Hale is a leadership coach and an award-winning principal. He is the CEO of Waterfall Learning.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Leadership
Powerful Partnerships
Jill Harrison Berg
2 months ago

undefined
The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Susan Moore Johnson
4 months ago

undefined
Managing Polarities in School Instructional Cultures
Jane Kise & Ann C. Holm
4 months ago

undefined
Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
4 months ago

undefined
The Power of Doing Less in Schools
Justin Reich
4 months ago
Related Articles
Powerful Partnerships
Jill Harrison Berg
2 months ago

The Power of Inclusive Leadership
Susan Moore Johnson
4 months ago

Managing Polarities in School Instructional Cultures
Jane Kise & Ann C. Holm
4 months ago

Making Sure Teachers Know They Matter
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher
4 months ago

The Power of Doing Less in Schools
Justin Reich
4 months ago