January 2, 2022
There are countless examples of people’s beliefs, actions, or habits living in apparent disharmony or conflict — known in psychology as cognitive dissonance. Independent schools have taken that response a step further. They have institutionalized cognitive dissonance and renamed it the Strategic Plan.
At the core of this “institutional dissonance” is the belief that independent schools are excellent, and yet need a Strategic Plan every 5 years to improve the quality of education without significantly impacting the program. Most schools adopt a strategic planning stance that there is something that can be improved within the school as a business entity, rather than the learning product that the school is delivering. The product is assumed to be excellent because we keep telling ourselves that it is; standardized external measures and branding reinforce the belief. To do otherwise, it is feared, would undermine the core product and invite criticism.
Siloed associations are happy to indulge the fiction that these elements are separable — a sub-par business and an excellent product — promoting the notion that fixing a silo, like enrollment management, will make the difference. Develop a better marketing plan, a better financial aid strategy, and a bogus accreditation assessment that will all make the machine not only run smoothly but improve the overall school by admitting better students. In addition, a literal industry of recruitment firms, sometimes masquerading as strategic consultants, push schools towards the most pressing strategic gap with a recruit: the mantra of 20th-century mission governance “guru” Jim Collins, to “get the right people on the bus in the right seats” prevails, despite unprecedented high levels of administrator turnover.
Heads of School are caught in the crossfire of this institutional dissonance, forced by governance to recruit Board members primarily for their ability to give, and yet dying to admit (without endangering that next gift or their annual review) that this is not the learning environment they would like to lead. Strategic planning committee members of the Board, with little to no expertise in pedagogy or curriculum or school complexity, naturally turn their strategic gaze to what they are comfortable with, as successful professionals or business people: communicating a narrative that benefited them as kids or professionals, and that just needs better messaging, digitally and otherwise. A better marketing plan leads to a better financial plan and future. As trustees, they can feel good about being fiduciary…