Why Strategic Planning is neither Strategic nor Planning | Sanje Ratnavale | 13 Min Read

January 2, 2022, and June 27, 2024

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 custodians of the experience they valued in a previous era and can continue to protect the traditional core of their school. Otherwise, why would they pay to join the Board? 

In the process, as we outlined in our articles about the failure of the 50-Year NAIS governance experiment, Strategic Plans for decades have failed to evolve the core of a school — its curriculum and pedagogy — and at what cost? As we are seeing across the country, the price is being paid by the consumer of the product (in wellness, purpose, and learning), rather than the business (with no owners, as in a 501(c)(3)) that delivers it, or even the customer who pays for it. Over time, the price must and will be more broadly paid by the consumer, the business, the product, and the customer. 

The essential question is less how the Program has failed to evolve (it’s obvious to anyone who is an educator) and more how it has pretended to evolve. After all, it says on the website that we do project-based learning, embed social-emotional learning into everything, value inclusion, and equity, and inculcate character, integrity, and collaboration as competencies. And what about all that professional development that was paid for during the last 20 years for all these programs and pedagogies? So if you are a Board member reading this and thinking about the Program at your school, here are a few questions you might ask to test the school’s program evolution for yourself: 

  1. Are the projects in our school assessed according to project skills (competencies) or the disciplinary content, and do these project skills (like collaboration or critical thinking) relate to our values and mission? 
  2. Has the new block schedule, that we implemented through our expensive scheduling consultants, with longer class periods resulted in students spending less time being presented with the material and more inquiry-driven time struggling with it by themselves? 
  3. How do the teachers embed and assess social-emotional learning in their classroom pedagogical strategies rather than in advisories, where food is the primary attraction? 
  4. With all the online electives we have offered for years in our Course of Study through our consortium partner, were the teachers well prepared for the Pandemic switch to blended and online learning, and did the kids ease naturally into those modalities as a result? 
  5. If you asked one of our graduates what they were good at without mentioning a subject, would they be able to identify those larger skills or competencies we put on our walls and their proficiency levels? 
  6. Would the students respond that their learning is giving them purpose and can you see that joy of learning written on their faces in class?

As a Trustee, you will likely be disappointed with the responses, and that is why independent schools need to rethink their strategic priorities to focus on measurably improving the core program rather than upgrading the window dressing. That will require a different kind of strategic plan.

Four Core Elements and Understandings for Strategic Planning

Let’s examine the most important elements of effective strategic planning for independent schools. 

1. Decide What Matters & Explain It

Schools are faced with a trifecta of institutional priorities that can easily cloud a strategic plan:

  • How do we attract and enroll the best and most appropriate students and families for our community?
  • How do we provide our current students and families with the best core curriculum and program that money can buy?
  • How do we capture the loyalty of our alumni so they will share their success by giving back to the school?

While all three priorities are important, the second is the core of any independent school, and if successfully developed, will naturally improve the first and third priorities. Instead, many schools are adding SEL and DEI-like ice cream flavors to the strategic planning menu but no one has a clear picture of what a successful core program looks like. One problem is that few of us do the hard work to understand what terms like social-emotional learning, project-based learning, or equity mean. At the same time, many of us latch on to what we think is valuable today and might attract families. We do that by pasting catch-phrases broadly on our websites announcing we are an inquiry-based school or a school for deeper learning or focus particularly on equity, etc. 

We make conceptual errors when we describe our program advances by conflating the notion of schoolwide competencies and mastery with traditional discipline-specific learning standards. This is one of the major reasons that many of what we call 21st-century pedagogical frameworks such as SEL and PBL have never really penetrated schools, despite their inclusion in strategic plans. It would be wise to make sure that the language that your school uses to describe the core program is fully understood by all those who will take responsibility for strategic planning success. Instead of joining the flavor of the month club, look at what will make your school stand out programmatically so that your marketing plan is grounded in differential value, having a quality of uniqueness, rather than joining the cartel of smoke and mirrors. 

2. Measure What Matters, not What’s Easy.

Most of the data that exists today for independent schools will not help to identify strategic priorities or manage strategic plans in ways that benefit the core learning environment. Certainly financial indicators matter, but as an educational institution, surely your strategic priority should be on measuring the effectiveness of your program. DAZL data, indicators of financial stability, fundraising or endowment targets, financial aid ratios, stats at a glance by school type, enrollment yield, and admissions funnel data will not help in this regard because they are retrospective measures or forecasts based on historical performance that somewhat define the health of the “business.” What data do you need?

(a) Trusting relationships, engagement, and commitment can be measured. The Climate Surveys which schools have used historically have no yardsticks of comparison with other schools — they are not normed nor are they developed into psychometrically and research-validated models of trust, commitment, and engagement. OESIS Network schools customize the Six Seconds Educational Vital Signs assessments that measure trust across all constituencies including trustees, leadership, faculty, parents, and students. This data is necessary for determining whether your plans have the capacity for success.

(b)  Very few independent schools have data on student competencies resulting from their values or high-level principles in mission and other key statements. Without this data, schools have no “on the ground” way to determine progress towards such critical objectives as inclusion, character, empathy, or integrity, other than disciplinary data or counseling activity. The normed assessments discussed in (a) are a great baseline and ongoing annual reckoning to measure overall improvement. Over time, however, it will be important to parse the community in ways that will indicate which constituencies of the student body and elements of the program are leading the trust equation and which are acting as drags to progress. Data on student competencies will clarify and pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses.

(c) Service industries particularly analyze the utilization of employee time by activity. Virtually no school does what is called activity-based costing (ABC). Instead, they delegate the management of teacher time to default assumptions based on a daily schedule, class sizes, number of sections, prep periods, and service days or team time. Ask a school to break down high-value teacher functions and lower-value functions, and determine the time on average in each category by a typical teacher. Without such an analysis, a teacher’s time is considered of equal importance across the course of a day, making it impossible to best allocate teaching resources across the day and the entire faculty. If a CFO or Business Officer at a school is unable to explain how 65% or more of the costs of a school are allocated (the learning process), how can that individual do their job effectively?  Currently, when cuts are required, the program is attacked because there are no tools to understand how to reallocate existing resources.

(d) All industries analyze the way customers use their products and services. They look at the emotional and brand connections they make with those products. That is the essence of Clayton Christensen’s notion of what “job” the product does for you as a customer: the milkshake in his studies was found to be a breakfast food by commuters looking for something that would last through a long commute — the “job” it served. Schools need to refocus their attention on how learning is being received rather than presented, something Emily Jones, Putney School (VT) Head, featured in OESIS Network Magazine, is always stressing to her faculty. What data, for example, do we have on how students are perceiving their learning on an emotional basis? How many of our schools are using something like a Student Emotional Equity dashboard (such as this one provided by Six Seconds)? Grades and student assessments of teachers at semester end are not the best we can do.

3. Value the PROCESS like it’s most of the Solution.

If you hire a strategic planning consultant to write a plan, then that plan is not your plan. It’s their plan. The same applies if it’s written by your Associate Head of School or your Strategic Planning Committee of the Board. The Plan must emerge out of a planning-enabled community process, and it must keep evolving as the data provides more context. Before the first plan is written, there must be a reality check (not the kind you get from your friendly, unpaid accreditation visitor). What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? This must be followed by a visioning process and movement towards alignment. The first plan will probably emerge as you start to assess trust at a leadership level. Programming, even recruiting, should be the goal of the process, not, as it is now, at the start of the process. Think broadly. Anything that is “off the table” will significantly limit your vision and the scope of your plan.

There is a natural tension in the notion of strategic planning: strategy is thinking-oriented and planning is action-oriented. Between the two, as we have stressed above, is what we call capacity, the ability to deliver. It rests on the buy-in, leadership, and trust of those involved. In organizations with no real ownership (non-profits), nothing could be more fundamental. Capacity results from alignment and data. Any successful team knows that once strategy, capacity, and planning are aligned, the tactics become so much more natural — and less controversial.

 So, when we use the term “strategic” we must not think of it as just something “important”, but something so important that it requires a shared understanding of success, built from trusting relationships throughout the entire school community. Everybody is responsible for school success. In short, for schools to do the brave work of change, they must build strong relationships where participants feel safe to be brave. 

4. Ensure your Indicators are Outcomes, not Inputs.

Resist the temptation to show that you are doing something, anything. Instead, go to the roots of your educational mission and focus on outcomes. Failures of input-based strategic planning naturally gravitate towards assigning blame to an individual. If we can’t measure progress in outcomes or towards a goal, there is no explanation left except the failures of the inputs (people or people-driven) you initially selected. A Strategic Plan must have clear outcomes. There is a difference between inputs and outcomes. An outcome is a proven or assessable impact. Input is something that can contribute to an outcome but usually serves as a proxy with little data for action. Listed below are some common inputs that appear in a typical DEI-focused Strategic Plan (rather than outcomes). Imagine that the school had another major backlash against racism after all these inputs had been implemented. Would you be able to determine whether or how any of these inputs below could be used to identify root causes or solutions?

o   Hire a DEI Director

o   Send Students or Faculty to a People of Color Conference

o   Set up Parent Affinity Groups

o   Attend Diversity Recruiting Fairs

o   Do Anti-Bias Training

o   Conduct Faculty PD

o   Make Dress Code and bathrooms more inclusive of gender differences

Without a list of measurable outcomes or objectives, it is impossible to know if the above inputs have any value. Did those inputs produce the outcomes you initially defined? If you began with outcomes, your list of inputs might appear very different. Some outcomes might be: a) demonstrable improvement in individual student empathy based on a normed index; and b) student response to faculty diversity ratios that mirror student ratios is positive based on the “belonging” index developed by the school.

With school missions by themselves providing little alignment for a school, the knock-on effect on “the Strategic Plan” has been to make it an empty ritual. Strategic planning, like many other school processes, has become more tactical or transactional. It has been emptied of the value of the journey and substantially detached from the consumer it serves. Instead, an extrinsic business product has been created with lots of perceived marketing value but little substance. As always, the price is paid by the student. Instead, do the hard work of real strategic planning by asking and answering the hard questions, eliminating institutional dissonance, and burying the narratives that have driven independent schools for the past fifty years.

Apply to join us at the OESIS London Strategic Planning Retreat for a roadmap to the above approach: June the 19th-21st, 2022. School teams must include a minimum mix of 5 Board members and administrators.

Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

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