Why Strategic Planning and Organizational Development Must be done by Every School . . . Every Year [Part I of II]

January 14, 2018

 

Why Strategic Planning and Organizational Development Must be done by Every School . . . Every Year [Part I of II]

 

Preparing for ESEA/ESSA:  What Effective Schools Do to Continuously Improve . . . and What Ineffective Schools Need to do to Significantly Improve

 

Dear Colleagues,

 

Introduction

 

   HAPPY NEW YEAR !!!!

 

   As I fly over the Rocky Mountains on my way home after a week of consulting in California, I am reading up on some recent national reports that are essential to district and school success.

 

   Two reports, this past month, have especially caught my attention:

 

The First Report:

 

ESSA Leverage Points: 50-State Report on Promising Practices for Using Evidence to Improve Student Outcomes

 

was published this month (January, 2018) by Results for America.

 

   This Report discusses their analyses of the Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA) Consolidated State Plans—from every state department of education in the country—that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education over the past 10 months. 

 

   Specifically, the Report describes how the state departments are proposing to address thirteen “leverage points” that relate to ESEA/ESSA’s requirements for school improvement.

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The Second Report:  

 

Examples of Actions Taken by Principals Trying to Lead Turnaround (2017)

 

is from the WestEd Center on School Turnaround (CST).

 

   On the About page in the Introduction of this document, it states:

 

“The CST is one of 7 national Content Centers in a federal network of 22 Comprehensive Centers. The U.S. Department of Education charges the centers with building the capacity of state education agencies (SEAs) to assist districts and schools in meeting student achieve­ment goals. The goal of the CST is to provide technical assistance and to identify, synthesize, and disseminate research-based practices and emerging promising practices that will lead to the increased capacity of SEAs to support districts in turning around their lowest-performing schools.”

 

The Abstract page of this document states:

 

“This report describes examples of actions that school principals have taken in trying to lead turnaround. Most principals have either not worked in a turnaround situation or have fallen short in a turnaround attempt, despite their best efforts. Not all of the principals high­lighted in this report have successfully turned around their schools, but we intend for these examples to be helpful to other principals, teacher-leader teams, and principal supervisors who are looking to approach turnaround work with strategic, but less common actions in an effort to get new, better results (my emphasis added).

 

The authors draw on prior research to frame the examples. The report also draws on the observations of two organizations with deep experience in the turnaround field: Public Impact and the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education.”

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   Clearly, as transformational leaders, all educators are in the business of school improvement.  While teachers and support staff are focusing on student improvement. . . Building administrators and supervisors are focusing on staff improvement. . . and, district administrators are focusing on school improvement.

 

   And this improvement is contextual.  Some schools want to go from “great to greater.”  Some schools from “good to great.”  And some schools from “targeted or comprehensive external support” to a level of “good” independent success.

 

   But the introductory comments (as above) in the Turnaround Report are particularly striking.

 

   Indeed, I cite these quotes at the beginning of this Blog to emphasize that—even after 13 years of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of ESEA (and two additional years since the passage of ESEA/ESSA)—the lead school improvement Technical Assistance (TA) Center for the U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that:

 

   * We still do not know how to best turn significantly underperforming schools around to ensure student, staff, and school success;

 

   * They are publishing a major national report with conclusions based on schools where “not all of the principals highlighted. . . have successfully turned around their schools;” and

 

   * They have selected their own research to fit into their own school improvement model to organize the Report and frame their recommendations.

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   The “Take-Away’s” are that:

 

   * There is no reliable, valid, or guaranteed evidence-base to any facet of school improvement—not for organization and planning, or staff and professional development, or curriculum and instruction, or student assessment and intervention; and

 

   * No one—especially the U.S. Department of Education (with its spotty NCLB/school improvement track record)—is “the expert” when it comes to guiding this process.

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   Thus, in order for school improvement and turn-around to succeed, it needs to be done:

 

   *  At each involved school and district site using intensive and sustained activities that include— 

 

       -- Ongoing local needs assessment and strategic planning science-to-practice processes;

 

       --Local resource analysis and capacity-strengthening science-to-practice processes; and

 

        --Local and on-site organizational, staff development, consultation, and technical assistance science-to-practice processes.

 

   The Key to these processes are the professionals (both at the site and involved as consultants), and their ability to use sound strategic planning processes to select the best services, supports, strategies, and interventions at the district, school, staff, and student levels to facilitate ongoing and sustained success—at all of those levels.

 

   Said a Different Way:  Just as we knew from the beginning of NCLB that “every student was not going to be proficient by 2014” . . .

 

   We know right now:  That having state department of education-determined “evidence-based or promising practices” embedded in a district or school improvement plan is NOT going to increase the number of students whose academic proficiency improves.

 

   Student achievement occurs in the classroom, NOT at the state capitol.

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The Dilemma . . . and The Solution

 

   My point here is not to criticize, but to caution. 

 

   But State Departments of Education have a Dilemma:

 

   While we still have not identified definitive science-to-practice approaches that maximize the probability of school improvement. . .

 

   ESEA/ESSA still requires our state departments of education (and districts and schools) to plan and implement—starting next year—school improvement processes for at least 5% of their schools . . .

 

   and the departments must provide guidance to the districts involved so that the schools in improvement status have at least one evidence-based intervention in their improvement plans.

_ _ _ _ _

 

   The Solution recommended here is:  

 

   For the Departments of Education to ensure that the District with school in improvement status use—and require those schools to use—evidence-based strategic planning processes . . .as required by ESEA/ESSA (see below).

 

   This will satisfy ESEA/ESSA’s evidence-based practice requirement, and will result in better decisions relative to the organizational, curricular, instructional, and multi-tiered systems of support practices that are actually needed by a school relative to staff and student success.

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Report I:  What Does ESEA/ESSA Require for School Improvement ?

 

   As noted above, the first report (ESSA Leverage Points) identifies ESEA/ESSA’s requirements in the area of school improvement, and then describes what the state departments have proposed to address thirteen school improvement “leverage points.”

 

   These ESEA/ESSA-required leverage points are (from the Report with some edits):

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 1.  States must create local ESSA plan procedures in consultation with the governor and in collaboration with the Districts (i.e., Local Education Agencies—LEAs).

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 2.  States must monitor LEA implementation of ESSA strategies described in their plans to ensure compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 3.  States must plan for periodic review and revision of SEA and LEA ESSA plans to reflect changes in strategies and programs—submitting significant changes for approval by the USED.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 4.  States must allocate at least 95% of the state’s school improvement set-aside to LEAs with schools identified for comprehensive and targeted school improvement—ensuring that the funds are “of sufficient size” to enable the LEA’s to effectively implement the selected/approved school improvement strategies.”

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 5.  States must describe their plan for developing and monitoring a school improvement application that includes the elements required by ESSA, including how the LEA will (a) develop, implement, and monitor CSI (comprehensive support and improvement) plans, while also supporting TSI (targeted support and improvement) schools; and (b) oversee the “rigorous review process” that the LEA will use with potential external partners.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 6.  States must engage in “monitoring and evaluating the use of [school improvement] funds by local educational agencies” and allows states to use part of the (5%) state school improvement set-aside to carry out these responsibilities.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 7.  States must provide technical assistance to LEAs “serving a significant number” of CSI or TSI schools.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 8.  States must ensure LEAs conduct their own school-level needs assessment in every identified CSI school, using monitoring/auditing to ensure compliance.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 9.  States must provide sufficient guidance to LEAs such that all CSI and TSI plans include at least one evidence-based intervention and that all CSI and TSI plans supported by federal school improvement grants include at least one intervention supported by the top three levels of evidence.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 10.  ESSA does not explicitly address a state-approved list of interventions but permits states to “take action to initiate additional improvement” in LEAs with either significant numbers of TSI schools or non-improving CSI schools and allows states to “establish alternative evidence-based State determined strategies that can be used by local educational agencies to assist” CSI schools. In other words, states are permitted to create a list but are not required to.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 11.  States must take more rigorous actions for non-exiting CSI schools, and districts must take additional actions for non-exiting TSI schools. The law on its own does not necessarily require that these actions relate to the use of evidence.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 12.  States are permitted—but not required—to “take action to initiate additional improvement” in districts with a “significant number” of CSI schools that do not meet the state’s exit criteria or in districts with a “significant number” of TSI schools.

 

   Requirement/Leverage Point 13.  States must review LEA plans and monitor expenditures to ensure LEAs use federal funds on evidence-based activities where required by law. For those allowable uses conditioned on the availability of supporting evidence, states must determine whether evidence is “reasonably available.”

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What the “Leverage” Report Found

 

   The Leverage Points above reinforce a critical issue for when educators are preparing to implement practices that are based on policies that are based on laws.

 

   The Issue:  It is essential that all district and school personnel actually read the original ESEA/ESSA law to determine what elements are required and which ones are recommended or suggested.

 

   Indeed, based on my thirteen-year career directing a multi-million dollar federal grant at the Arkansas Department of Education, I have described in numerous, past Blogs how the U.S. Department of Education and its TA Centers (and some state departments of education) sometimes suggest that some practices— while cited in federal or state law—are required when they are actually recommended.

 

   In my experience, (federal and state) departments of education often do this to assert their preferences for specific programs or practices, or to drive districts and schools to use personnel or programs that they have funded.

 

   Moreover, when they do this, they are depending on the fact that virtually all of the state, district, or school personnel with whom they are interacting will not question, research, or confront their exaggerated statements.

 

   Critically, even when practices are actually mandated, states, districts, and schools still often have the right to request a waiver—which can be approved with sufficient empirical support and practical documentation.

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   This “required versus recommended” issue is apparent at the very beginning of the Results for America Leverage Report.  Indeed, in its Executive Summary, it says:

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states, school districts, and schools new flexibility to design K-12 education systems that reflect local needs and priorities. In exchange, ESSA encourages, and in some cases requires, the use of evidence-based approaches and continuous improvement to drive improved outcomes.

 

   Thus, the whole issue of when and how to use evidence-based and “promising practice” approaches is flexible and fluid. 

 

   Among the questions are: 

 

   * How do we apply ESEA/ESSA’s “evidence-based” definition to specific programs, practices, curricula, and interventions?

 

   * Who makes the decision, and how is it objectively, independently, non-politically, and consistently validated?

 

   * Which parts of ESEA/ESSA require evidence-based practices, and where in ESEA/ESSA are these practices only encouraged?

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   All of this aside, the Leverages Report detailed the following major results:

 

   * Across all 51 state plans (50 states plus the District of Columbia), 162 promising practices for building and using evidence to improve student outcomes were identified; all but five states included at least one promising practice.

 

   * Just nine states emphasized the use of evidence and continuous improvement in the design of their school improvement applications (Leverage Point 5).

 

   * Only 14 states highlighted plans to base funding allocations at least in part on the proposed use of evidence (Leverage Point 4).

 

   * Only three states (Delaware, South Carolina, and Texas) described strong plans to prioritize the use of evidence and continuous improvement when exercising their authority to intervene in districts unable to improve their lowest-performing schools (Leverage Point 12).

 

   * Only seven states (DE, IN, IA, MN, OH, OK, and TN) prioritized high-quality needs assessments as a key component of the school improvement process (Leverage Point 8).

 

 

   Given my comments and recommendations above, this last result is the most troubling.

 

   This result suggests—now more than 15 years removed from the passage of No Child Left Behind—that our state departments of education still do not fully understand the importance of science-to-practice strategic planning relative to successfully addressing the needs of underperforming districts and schools.

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Report II:  How Principals Try to Turnaround Under-Performing Schools

 

   As introduced above, the second report that caught my attention this past month was:  Examples of Actions Taken by Principals Trying to Lead Turnaround from the WestEd Center on School Turnaround (CST).

 

   While I still do not completely understand why it was published, the Report does outline a number of important strategic planning processes that could help a district or school to locally identify and effectively implement the organization and planning, staff and professional development, or curriculum and instruction, and student assessment and intervention strategies needed by a district or school to facilitate meaningful improvement.

 

   But unfortunately, the Report is largely descriptive, and reads like a menu.  It identifies a number of common organizational actions, but it does not identify the characteristics or conditions in a specific district or school that makes one or more of the listed actions more advantageous and/or more predictive of improvement success.

 

   And so, the fear is that a district or school would simply pick and implement (without using a systematic and effective needs assessment and strategic planning process) one or more actions from the menu provided—resulting in failure, enhanced frustration, and perhaps, a more convoluted problem.

 

   Significantly, this continues a common approach used—since the passage of NCLB and before—by the U.S. Department of Education and its funded TA Centers.  The approach is to present states, districts, and schools a menu-driven framework, and then suggest that—in the absence of data-driven decision-making—they pick the strategies off the menu that they think will work.

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   At this point, I will list the “examples of actions taken by principal trying to lead turnaround” that are cited in the Report.  But this will lead to Part II of this Blog, where I will discuss strategic planning in more detail.

 

The Turnaround Actions listed include:

 

   Vision

      Establish and Communicate a Clear Vision

      Help Staff Understand and Embrace the Need for Change

 

   Goals

      Prioritize Goals and Focus Areas

      Make Action Plans Based on Data

      Identify and Achieve a Few Early Wins

      Reduce Time Focused on Nonessentials

 

   Data

      Establish the Expectations for a Data Culture

      Adjust Instructional Practice through Visible Data

      Use Data Continually to Solve Problems   

 

   Change Leadership

      Focus on Successful Tactics, Discontinue Unsuccessful Ones

      Break Rules and Norms, Take New Action

      Change Systems and Structures

 

   Teachers and Leaders

      Make Necessary Replacements

      Attract, Select, and Retain Top Talent

      Build and Lead a Team of Leaders

      Ensure Ongoing Professional Growth Opportunities

 

   Instruction

      Align Instruction to Assessments and Standards

      Monitor and Improve Instructional Quality

      Develop and Deploy a Team of Instructional Leaders

 

   Strategic Partnerships

      Gain Support of Key Influencers

      Enlist Partner Organizations

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   Once again, all of these strategies are potentially useful to districts or schools in need of improvement.  Two questions remain:

 

   1. With all that a school in improvement status needs to do, which of these strategies are the immediate, high-hit strategies that will begin the improvement process in a timely way?

 

   2. Once the high-hit strategies are identified; exactly what is the training, who and where are the targets; and what are the resources, implementation steps, and short- and long-term outcomes needed such that improvement begins, is established, and can be maintained over time?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

Summary

 

   As noted earlier:

 

   * There is no reliable, valid, or guaranteed evidence-base to any facet of school improvement—not for organization and planning, or staff and professional development, or curriculum and instruction, or student assessment and intervention; and

 

   * No one—especially the U.S. Department of Education (with its spotty NCLB/school improvement track record)—is “the expert” when it comes to guiding this process.

_ _ _ _ _

 

   Thus, in order for school improvement and turn-around to succeed, it needs to be done:

 

   *  At each involved school and district site using intensive and sustained activities that include— 

 

      --Ongoing local needs assessment and strategic planning science-to-practice processes;

 

      --Local resource analysis and capacity-strengthening science-to-practice processes; and

 

       --Local and on-site organizational, staff development, consultation, and technical assistance science-to-practice processes.

 

   The Key to these processes are the professionals (both at the site and involved as consultants), and their ability to use sound strategic planning processes to select the best services, supports, strategies, and interventions at the district, school, staff, and student levels to facilitate ongoing and sustained success—at all of those levels.

 

   In Part II of this Blog series, we will discuss the five phases of the strategic planning process—based on my work in hundreds of schools across the country, and on the fact that the process to be described was part of the school improvement process for the Arkansas Department of Education for all Focus Improvement Status schools in the state during the NCLB Waiver/Flexibility years of the Obama administration.

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   Meanwhile, I hope that this discussion has generated both interest in and questions about the school improvement process—especially as our state departments of education move toward finalizing their respective processes on behalf of our districts and schools nationwide.

 

   As always, our focus must be on the progress and outcomes for all students.  But we all know that success for our students means staff who similarly successful at what they do.

 

   If you would like to continue this discussion on a more personal level, I am always available by e-mail.  If your Leadership or Strategic Planning Team would benefit from a free one-hour conference call with me, let’s set it up as soon as possible.

 

Best,

 

Howie

 

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