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April 1, 2021

The Best-Laid Plans Can Succeed

School leaders often neglect a key mechanism for empowerment: The school-improvement plan.

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School improvement planning has been described as many things, but empowering is likely not one of them. However, does anyone think that a school would be better off with leaders who do not plan?

High-quality improvement planning is a way for leaders to implement change and contribute to higher levels of student achievement. In general, two types of planning are predominant in today's organizations. Strategic planning—a long-term, systematic process of steering an organization through a changing environment—empowers leaders to set an organization's direction, allocate resources, and build coalitions, all in service of making progress. Operational planning—the translation of a strategic plan's abstract goals into manageable tasks—increases an organization's maneuverability to respond quickly to real-time issues (Bridle, 2010).

In education, improvement planning has been viewed mostly as something strategic rather than operational—a focus on "big" over "small." Although strategic planning is important, too much reliance on it can result in bureaucratic compliance, where broad elements of planning, like visions and objectives, are clear, but the specific action steps needed to achieve them are not (Mintrop & MacLellan, 2002; VanGronigen & Meyers, 2020). When developing plans, school leaders tend to engage in "satisficing" behavior—a term Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon used to describe people settling for a "good enough" solution to a complex challenge instead of an "optimal" solution.

For example, in research we recently conducted looking at hundreds of school improvement plans, we found that some principals submitted the very same plan to district leaders across multiple time points (Meyers & VanGronigen, 2019). Critical logistical aspects of the plan—devising a timeline, determining those responsible for completing tasks, and identifying needed resources—were sometimes blank, frequently ambiguous or incoherent, and seldom meaningful. Moreover, district leaders were responsible for coaching principals on developing as well as approving these plans, so they, too, seemed either unable or unwilling to shift expectations of and approaches to high-quality plan development. Nothing illustrates this better than our review of plans created by principals from ten different schools in one district: All of the plans were identical despite wildly different school contexts!

Thinking Short-Cycle

To get out of the rut of "satisficing" plans, we believe that short-cycle (operational) improvement plans produced at least each semester can be an empowering departure from traditional (strategic) improvement plans. The main reason for this is that short-cycle plans are developed more often and regularly revisited and adjusted (see Figure 1). In some cases, short-cycle plans can even be considered "living documents" that are widely visible, inform daily operations, and are subject to revision. As such, they could be powerful supplements to traditional plans.

Figure 1. Short-Cycle Approach to School-Improvement Planning

el202104_meyers_fig1.gif
Adapted from VanGronigen, B. A., & Meyers, C. V. (2020). Short-cycle school improvement planning as a potential organizational change lever: An analysis. Teachers College Record, 122(5), 1–30.

Unlike traditional plans, short-cycle plans are not tethered to sanctions or federal funding. Instead, short-cycle planning presents school leaders with an opportunity to reimagine their school's vision; engage students, teachers, and community members; and redesign how their school ensures each student receives rigorous and equitable learning opportunities.

But short-cycle planning doesn't always come naturally to school leaders. Over the last few years, we have examined approximately 500 short-cycle plans from schools across many contexts (grade level, location, etc.) to assess plan quality, understand educator perspectives on the planning process, and study plan-making behaviors. Some principals fully engaged in the process, resulting in steadily improving plan quality and clearly advancing objectives. Yet the majority of principals created short-cycle plans that mirrored their traditional plans. In other words, nothing really changed, suggesting that many principals either lack the fundamentals to plan well, maintain inflexible mindsets even when offered new ways to optimize improvement planning, or both.

Based on the evidence as well as our experiences working with principals, we believe school (and district) leaders must reframe their approach to planning and commit to practicing the fundamentals of good plan development. Indeed, that's where the true promise of short-cycle planning lies.

Short-cycle planning represents a golden opportunity for principals and school leadership teams to make their improvement plan a living document. By living document, we mean a document that can be tinkered with and developed throughout and beyond a semester. Because the short-cycle approach prioritizes change in manageable chunks, it empowers leaders to "live" in the details of a few select, but ripe, areas. The most important, urgent work of change is nested in a long-term vision. The centrality of the short-cycle plan to the everyday work of the school increases its accessibility to teachers, counselors, and specialists.

In many traditional plans, content is often frontloaded—all of the tasks for the semester are scheduled for August and September with almost nothing planned for the rest of the fall. Inevitably, as issues arise during the semester, not all planned tasks are completed on time. If funds have been dispensed, motivation to complete tasks is likely to wane. Moreover, the amount of content developed for traditional school plans—often spanning a complete academic year or more—is so extensive that determining what to prioritize next and how to respond to new insights can result in user paralysis. With a short-cycle living document, however, school leaders are expected to regularly monitor progress and adjust the plan based on implementation progress and current realities.

Another benefit of a living document is that it requires collaboration between leaders and teachers. Plans developed in isolation solely by leaders and then unveiled to teachers seldom inspire. An empowering plan is shared—not dictated. Including teachers (and other staff members) in the planning process results in increased investment and commitment, and their belief and participation in the process builds collegiality and can equip teachers for schoolwide leadership work.

Finally, for plans to make a difference, the process of planning must be viewed from a system-wide perspective. Research is clear that principals of underperforming schools are typically given the task of turning around performance. Yet district leaders also have critical roles shepherding plan development and implementation. They are responsible for clearly articulating district priorities and helping school leaders strategically connect goals both within their schools and across the district. These connections result in increased coherence across schools and can bolster improvement initiatives. Perhaps most important, district leaders' interactions with principals lift up improvement planning as a way to keep a pulse on progress, identify areas needing additional or differentiated support, and devise expectations for next steps and subsequent planning efforts.

Back to the Fundamentals

What do principals and their colleagues need to create a high-quality, short-cycle plan to organize and implement change? Over the last five years, we have worked closely with the University of Virginia's Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE), which identified eight plan design criteria to guide school leaders in short-cycle plan development. As an extension of our work with PLE, we advanced a plan assessment rubric with 12 domains (VanGronigen, Meyers, & Hitt, 2017). Here, we synthesize many of these concepts into five fundamentals of improvement planning: driving purposes, root cause analysis, action steps, measurement, and alignment.

Driving Purposes

First, leaders at all levels should contribute to the driving purposes of the plan—why a school is pursuing the organizational changes. The most empowering aspect of any planning process is envisioning what can be. On the one hand, there is an opportunity to think broadly about how a school can and should be different. Short-cycle planning requires a long-term, ambitious vision that can inspire change. On the other hand, identifying a few of the most important priorities—or, for many, problems of practice—for short-term focus is crucial to signaling what must change quickly to start realizing the broader vision. Furthermore, plan design decisions at this early stage should target changing adult behaviors (teachers use formative assessment practices daily to gauge students' literacy progress) instead of goals that are abstract (improve reading instruction) or too broad (increase reading test scores by 10 percent).

Root Causes Analyses

Desired outcomes are only attainable, however, if the right priorities are addressed. Root causes analysis is a necessary process to pinpoint foundational reasons why success has been interrupted or not yet achieved. Principals identify possible explanations for current problems, gather information about those explanations, and think analytically to assess whether the proposed explanations for problems are the actual reasons that problems exist.

In our research, we have found this aspect of plan development to be among the most deficient, perhaps in part because it is the least linear, receives little professional development attention, and can appear self-evident ("I know the problem is X because I have taught in this school for years"). Too often, though, educators stop at symptoms ("I do not have enough time to conduct instructional observations") instead of digging to the cause ("I have not prepared my assistant principal to take on responsibility Y to free up time for me to conduct instructional observations"). Without identifying root causes, subsequent stages of the planning process either respond to symptoms or are likely unrelated to what changes need to occur to realize meaningful change. Root causes are the connective tissue between a plan's vision and the action steps that realize that vision.

Action Steps

The third fundamental of a good plan is advancing concrete action steps that can be checked off as completed. Though education leaders seem to like action steps, we often see at least two critical considerations for such steps missing from most plans. First, action steps are often itemized lists of loosely related things that fail to build toward an organizational change. Instead, a series of tightly scaffolded items that are accomplished sequentially is more likely to lead to lasting organizational change. A second common tendency in planning is to list tasks—often predetermined—as action steps. Some routine examples we have noticed include attending professional development in late summer, regularly holding PLC or data team meetings, and conducting classroom walkthroughs. These tasks—as necessary as they are—are common in many schools, and the plans we see seldom provide the level of detail necessary to know what principals and school leaders will do differently or why the changes will matter.

Instead of vaguely worded tasks, identify high-leverage leadership moves that will, if made, drive toward desired outcomes. High-leverage leadership moves—or those moves that will widely influence school culture, teacher instruction, or other critical organizational aspects of school—can be designed for the entire school or individual classrooms, but they require school leaders to have clear, active responsibilities for leading the change. As such, action steps need to be designed, implemented, communicated, and monitored as leadership moves that attend to the what, how, and why—Simon Sinek's (2009) Golden Circle of change.

If a school leadership team plans classroom walkthroughs, for example, action steps should detail what they will be doing (visiting classrooms during reading instruction to observe the use of formative assessments), how they will do it (using a rubric collectively developed with staff over the summer to guide "look-fors"), and why they will do it (providing real-time feedback to teachers to increase differentiated instructional practices). It is essential that educators know where they are collectively going and why, so they don't arrive at a destination prematurely or with little consequence. Action steps should also be written clearly enough that the entire school community is aware of progress.

Measurement

One of the most critical ways to know how a journey is going is through thoughtful, careful measurement of efforts. While measures do not have to be complex or burdensome, they should be continuous, attainable, and understandable. Anyone in a school should be able to track progress with action steps and understand when goals have been met. A common mistake in planning is to focus primarily—even solely—on end-of-year test scores. The logic goes something like this: If we adopt a new literacy program in the early summer, train teachers in the late summer and early fall, and implement it with some level of fidelity in fall and spring, end-of-year English/language arts (ELA) scores will increase. Thus, the only measure we need in our plan is a comparison of last year's ELA scores and our anticipated ELA scores for the next year.

The problem with this is that whether scores rise or not, this logic makes it difficult for someone to—with confidence—map back what changes actually happened and which of them mattered. Instead, principals must measure distinct efforts at strategic intervals that map directly onto action steps undertaken. Thus, if a new literacy program is adopted, principals might measure teacher understanding during professional development sessions instead of just taking attendance. They might ask: How can I measure implementation fidelity, even at a cursory level? Perhaps it's a short, three-item survey that is administered after every professional development session or PLC meeting where implementation of what was learned in that professional development section is expected.

We believe that any substantial set of action steps implemented to spur organizational change should have multiple measures (and various forms of student assessments are not "it"!) for school leaders to be able to identify if, when, and how change is happening.

Alignment

A fifth and final fundamental of planning is woven throughout the previous four—internal plan alignment. Every high-quality plan we reviewed had the following in common: You can read it from beginning to end and completely understand what the school is expecting to change and the action steps necessary to accomplish that change. The driving purposes are clear. Root causes emerge from evidence that strongly suggests addressing those causes will help realize driving purposes. Action steps are coherent and hang together in ways that build toward addressing root causes. Meaningful measures are in place to understand whether action steps are working and highlight the extent to which the school has or is changing. Moreover, details—such as identifying who is responsible for overseeing action steps or timelines for implementation—are essential components that solidify responsibilities and set expectations. A high-quality plan results in everyone understanding change efforts, why they matter, how they will be achieved, and how schools know these efforts are making a difference.

Plan to Succeed

For too long, the improvement planning process has been presented to school leaders as a bureaucratic endeavor tied to carrots (release of grant funds) and sticks (sanctions for underperformance). This is a problem because strategically planning to improve a school could be—and perhaps should be—one of the most empowering aspects of leading schools. Each planning engagement is an opportunity to envision how a school can become more collegial, how student learning opportunities can be more rigorous and equitable, and how instruction can improve. Empowered principals understand that planning is more than bureaucracy—it is an opportunity to engage their school community to create a thriving learning environment for students.

Improvement planning—when done well—sharpens focus, which holds promise to enhance interactions, coaching, and resource brokerage between school and district leaders. By helping principals include essential components within their plans, district leaders can empower them and their schools—showing principals what's possible and not just what's required.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What are the differences between short-cycle plans and traditional plans? What are some benefits and challenges of each?

➛ Of the five fundamentals of improvement planning—driving purposes, root cause analysis, action steps, measurement, and alignment—which is the hardest to implement and why? What advice from the authors might help ease that challenge?

➛ Do you consider your current improvement planning empowering? How could it be better?

References

Bridle, P. (2010). Where have the long-term leaders gone? Industrial and Commercial Training, 42(3), 156–159.

Meyers, C. V., & VanGronigen, B. A. (2019). A lack of authentic school improvement plan development: Evidence of principal satisficing behavior. Journal of Educational Administration, 57(3), 261–278.

Mintrop, H., & MacLellan, A. M. (2002). School improvement plans in elementary and middle schools on probation. Elementary School Journal, 102(4), 275–300.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. London, UK: Penguin Group.

VanGronigen, B. A., & Meyers, C. V. (2020). Short-cycle school improvement planning as a potential organizational change lever: A descriptive analysis of plans. Teachers College Record, 122(5), 1–30.

VanGronigen, B. A., Meyers, C. V., & Hitt, D. H. (2017). A rubric for assessing schools' plans for rapid improvement [The Center on School Turnaround]. WestEd. Retrieved from https://csti.wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/CST_Rubrics-for-school-improvement.pdf

Coby V. Meyers is the chief of research of the University of Virginia's Partnership for Leaders in Education and associate professor of education in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia.


Bryan A. VanGronigen is assistant professor of education in the School of Education at the University of Delaware.

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