Team Duncan – Strategic Planning vs Strategic Thinking

Arne Duncan has been at his post as Education Secretary for several months now. I’ve been following his escapades closely at change.org and my own blog. High off Mr. Obama’s election as President, I was on board Team Duncan when I heard of his appointment. Since then, I’ve taken a different stance. Not quite a 180, but I’ve developed a healthy criticism for Duncan and Obama’s education policies.

Way back in 2007, Robert Evans wrote an article arguing against the strict application of strategic planning for schools. “The Case Against Strategic Planning” was given to me by my father in-law after he attended, of all things, a planning sessions at a local private school. The paper is a great read for anyone involved in education, parents and kids too. I suggest you take some time to read the whole piece.

As I read Evans’s article I began to realize much of what Duncan and Obama have detailed in their “race to the top”, “pillars of reform”, etc. are exactly what should not be happening.

Evans states people often confuse construction of plans with creating an actual strategy. Strategic plans focus on step-by-step problem solving, timetables, measurable results, and fixed outcomes. Plans focus on structure and are not open to flexibility, often avoiding addressing uncertainty and unpredictability.

Just look at Team Duncan’s support for merit pay, longer school days, standardized testing, and charters. Not that I disagree with those things, Duncan and Co. fail to realize all the nuances of each approach and think about how to utilize them best to reach their goals.

Duncan and Obama are ignoring all the flaws of strategic planning. They are basing their policy decisions on predictability, objectivity, and structure.

Predictability:

Every teacher knows that schools are fluid environments, as are the communities they operate in. Political, technological, and social landscapes have changed drastically in even five years. Sometimes in ways we could not have predicted(twitter who knew?). The world will not wait while you debate. A plan cannot become and end in itself. Saying we want to close the bottom 5,000 schools and reopen them in five years might seem like a blueprint to better education, but it cannot be a replacement for addressing the realities facing our schools.

Objectivity:

In crafting a beautiful plan it can be easy to overlook the soft data effecting schools. Hard data is so nice, cut and dry. I love it. Graduation rates, test scores, and the like line everything up so nicely. When we base a merit pay system or funding system like No Child Left Behind, which Duncan and Obama still support, on something like our current testing system important mitigating factors are ignored. Our current testing system does nothing to show a students understanding of the material. Current standardized tests prove nothing except how well a student can memorize and fill in bubbles. True understanding can only be shown from written exams asking for problem solving and analysis. This is something I have argued for time and time again.

I also spoke recently on how one disruptive, which doesn’t necessarily denote misbehaving, student can skew test scores for an entire classroom. Linking merit pay to the current testing system doesn’t take this into account. Nor does it factor in the many other tasks teachers perform such as implementing new technology, mentoring colleagues, or tutoring students for example. Without this soft data one cannot get the complete picture of what a teacher is doing.

Structure:

Schools do not often produce rational outcomes. Anyone with children knows kids are pretty damn irrational at times. I don’t care, toddlers to teenagers just do some stuff that make you slap your forehead. Human judgement can adapt to whatever kids can dish out better than a strict plan. Focusing on the plan as an end all be all puts all the weight on the means totally forgetting the end. Look at the 5,000 schools business again or the D.C. voucher debacle. Duncan is missing the most important questions he should be asking. “Why am I doing this? Is this the best way to pursue my objective?”

I’ve spent all this time criticizing Team Duncan on what they should not be doing, I’m going to switch gears and talk about what they should.

Duncan and Co should employ some strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is in many ways the antithesis of strategic planning. Strategic thinking is flexible, creative, considers hard and soft facts, and collects opinions from teachers and students. An outline, not a blueprint.

Innovations are not something to push out like merit pay, charter schools, or longer schools days. New reforms should be adaptable. We should expect to modify them during implementation, as education is fluid. Static reforms are bound to fail. Like so many things in life, reforms must evolve or be pushed aside.

Simplify plans. Having many standards forces us to spend less time on each one. Testing many standards will bring us down the same road. Leaner standards and adaptable skills allow us to prepare students for anything that is thrown at them.

Strategic thinking leaves room for schools to roll with the punches. Less targets over shorter periods of time keep a school flexible. A school can adapt to new situations, instead of being bound by a five year plan that was out of date in less than five months.

Lastly, strategic thinking takes information from many sources into account. Something as trivial as gossip or hearsay from teachers and students can provide valuable candid insight into what’s happening in the trenches. Students and parents should be surveyed on the status of their school and learning experience. Weak spots can be caught quickly and strengths bolstered. Hey, if parent involvement matters to Obama and Duncan, then it should be encouraged in all forms, especially one as helpful as this.

Flexibility has always been a key to education reform. It is a corner stone of strategic thinking. If we are talking in business terms, as some reformers including myself occasionally do, what business can expect to last long that is not adaptable to change? Remember the key to strategic thinking is in the name. Thinking! We should be thinking, considering, evaluating, reevaluating reforms. Always adapting to changes when applicable. Otherwise we will fall back to more of the same ol strategery.

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One Response

  1. if "Team Duncan" or "Team Obama's" actions in El-Hi Education were a "strategic plan" that would be a gain. Their "pillars" are ideological commitments that "reform" can be realized by "standards and "standardized tests." This "policy" goes back to a summit meeting of state governers and President Bush I, and it has failed at every step.

    Strategic thinking as described as you and Robert Evans describe it would represent "Change we can believe in." Such change is presently nowhere in sight.

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