Helping Schools Engage in Collaborative, Strategic Problem Solving
Problems With the Planning Process
Earlier this year, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence released a report highlighting practices in Kentucky’s high-performing, high-poverty schools. Researchers collected information using the same audit tool that the Kentucky Department of Education uses to diagnose problems in schools identified for improvement, then compared those results with similar information amassed by state-conducted audits of low-performing schools.
The analysis yielded some unanticipated results. While the successful schools scored well on some areas of the audit, they did not score well on indicators related to comprehensive planning. Indeed, the data revealed no Planning That Matters: Helping Schools Engage in Collaborative, Strategic Problem Solving By Craig Jerald significant difference between high- and low-performing schools on any of 16 indicators measuring how well schools had followed the recommended process for creating Comprehensive School Improvement Plans.1
What can this mean? Do high-performing schools really not bother to engage in systematic planning? Is there no real relationship between good planning and measurable school improvement?
The answer, of course, is no. The same study revealed that high-performing schools engage in more collaborative decision making, work harder to connect professional development to student achievement data, and make more efficient use of time and resources. None of those activities is possible, or at least possible to do well, without serious and thoughtful planning. When asked to comment about this apparent paradox, an audit team member said of one school, “Their [Comprehensive School Improvement Plan] was not exemplary, but their school was. They are planning, but it did not get captured in that document, not formally.” Another recalled having seen the reverse situation when participating in state audits of schools needing improvement. Some low- performing schools had crafted “model” plans and documentation, this team member said, but “did not appear to be doing much of it in the classrooms.”2
Instead of dismissing this finding as a bizarre anomaly, policymakers and assistance providers would do well to ponder its implications. Too often the formal planning process required by state and federal policy is perceived as a bureaucratic exercise resulting in written plans that do not drive real change efforts for the day-to-day work of schools. And too often it is disconnected from the kind of planning that can lead to significant, measurable improvement.
The problem is not that states have done a bad job in explaining the requirements for formal planning or providing tools to do the job well. Most states, Kentucky included, have put considerable energy into creating materials to assist comprehensive school improvement planning. Washington, for example, now offers an interactive Web tool that walks schools through a guided, eight- step planning process, along with a 170- page guidebook that includes everything from sample meeting agendas to document templates. Many independent organizations have published excellent tools and guidebooks as well.
The real problem is that schools can follow all of the recommended steps for formal planning, engage in all of the activities and meetings suggested, and even craft excellently written plans, yet—even with hands-on assistance—still not engage in the kind of deliberate activities that propel real change and drive professional work in effective schools.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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