Picture it, a small room filled with a team of educators. Its late September or early October. EQAO IIR’s, CAT/4 scores and other forms of student achievement data are strewn across a table. Highlighters, pencils and possibly a few laptops are being furiously engaged to find the “magic bullet”. The room is filled with equal parts apathy, cynicism, excitement, hope and a bit of fear. The educators around this table are an interesting cross-section of the staff. There are the keeners who love to be involved, the vets who know where all the bodies are buried, the career minded and the true believers. You guessed it folks, it’s School Improvement Planning time! It’s time to make use of trailing indicators of student achievement to plot out the future of the school! It’s a quant’s happiest time of the year.
I am an education geek, which should come as no surprise. I have always loved the idea of school planning and its potential. I have great difficulties with what the process has become rather than with the process itself. We have some very talented and well-intentioned board leaders who see the best in the process. They work tirelessly to try and breath life into this dead horse. They see the potential for change in the process but sadly in schools, it has become an accountability piece to be completed for sign-off by a supervisory officer and then put out to pasture. As Pasi Sahlberg says, “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility has been subtracted.” While there are always exceptions, most schools cling to narrowly defined goals that sound good but have little potential for change. The goals are framed in the lens of a system that has long valued improvement FAR more than innovation.
Ontario’s school planning process is old school business. It places emphasis on the analyzing and less on the doing. As the private sector moves away from static business plans and models to a lean mentality, education must follow suit. If we don’t, then we are simply doing school rather than making improvements. I think that SMART goals by nature are nonsense and become even sillier when put into practice. It rings of acrostic poetry at its finest! As a wise man has consistently reminded me, education is a messy business. The speed of innovation in this era makes things even messier. In 2009 Clay Shirky put it best:
It is time to stop planning and to start designing. IKEA is a perfectly designed ecosystem from its entrance to its exit. It provides an experience that engages more than it infuriates. It is designed around a set of core values that inform all planning. The general design shapes any strategic planning. Education runs directly opposite to this premise. This is why education fails prey to fad programs. Ad hoc or shifting plans that are not grounded in a deeper design or philosophy are like a house built on a sand.
I love Duke basketball (which gives some reason to hate me!!!). Coach K is a genius at creating culture and established values. Year in and year out Duke wins. They don’t always win the whole thing but they are always in the reckoning. Improvement planning for Duke might include a goal like a 3% increase in FG% a la SMART BUT it would be part of a larger design structure rather than an isolated and inconsequential goal. Winning programs win because of culture and design. They have a program that weathers storms. Alex Ferguson thrived for 26 years at Manchester United because of a designed structure and culture. He did not bend to fads or silly trends. Core values ruled the day. He changed with the times but he did not bend to them.
School Improvement Planning in its current construction is simply another example of “doing school”. I am so amazed by the number of things that we just because we have to do them. This is dangerous business since we risk alienated staff, students and parents while wasting HUGE amounts of money. We risk “TPS Form” madness:
I have seem incremental improvements in this area but by and large public education still has its feet stuck in the mud. I strongly believe that the best way to improve planning is to craft REAL and ACTIONABLE mission, vision and value statements. Mission statements are the “me” statements. They are about what the school or the system stand for while the vision is about “them”. Vision is about what we will do to support our stakeholders. Mission and vision must be supported by strong values. Once these have been established, we can get busy creating a culture and designing the necessary functions for success.
Design incorporates context, relevancy and authenticity. Planning alone is pure accountability for accountability’s sake. Design and strategy will lead to success. Planning alone will leave us wandering in the desert looking for the promised land.