Planning for Failure? Or for School Success?

American Education's Newspaper of Record
February 12, 2003

The irony is just too much. Your school, labeled “underperforming,” or an equivalent term, has to develop an “improvement plan”. Unfortunately, it is just such “improvement planning” that currently accounts for a large share of school failure.

There are straightforward, proven means for improving achievement in virtually any school setting. But school improvement planning, like its sister, school “reform,” merely distracts us from the hard work of improving teaching.

More than a decade ago, Michael Fullan began to wonder at the havoc wrought by improvement planning. It fails, he wrote, because it so quickly becomes elaborate and complex, “a source of confusion and burden to teachers,” on whom improvement primarily depends. Where schools saw grand plans, he saw what has become a useful phrase in educational circles—“overload and fragmentation.” Most important, he and others saw how these plans themselves supplant what does improve instruction and hence raise levels of achievement:

a team of teachers meeting regularly—and continuously-- to design, test and then adjust their lessons and strategies in light of their results.

Boatloads of schools attest to the power in this simple formula. To cite only one recent case: schools in Chicago were four times as likely to be improving academically where such “frequent teacher collaboration” created “strong professional communities.”

And yet: the typical school or district improvement plan takes us in an entirely different direction. I’ve reviewed hundreds of these “strategic” or “comprehensive reform” plans from around the country. Almost none of them make these simple collaborative structures the soul of their improvement plan; most don’t include them at all.

More typically, strategic plans contain a dizzying, incoherent abundance of activities and responsibilities within columns and categories like “Goals”, “Action Plan” (or “Action Steps”); “Objectives”; “Timeline”; “Resources needed”; “Evaluation”; “Target Areas” and more. Superficially, they are large, handsome documents; school boards, district offices and accreditation agencies love them.

But behind the graphic elegance, and the best intentions, you discover why this is a bankrupt model. The first casualty is clarity. The key terms themselves, like “Goals,” “Action steps,” and “Evaluation” get confused; they wind up being used almost interchangeably. This accounts for a phenomena that dooms real improvement from the start: for all this planning, many teachers can’t remember what their goals are.

How could they? The best schools and organizations know that no one can pursue more than about two goals and expect results. The plans I see set an average of at least half a dozen or more. These in turn unleash—and become confused with--a torrent of promises to implement an exhaustive array of popular but unproven programs, initiatives and name-brand teaching fads.

Many administrators admit to me privately that they know the plan itself is the problem, that they and their teachers get saddled with an impossible number of goals and processes. The length and complexity of these plans ensure that no one really knows if or how well anything is being implemented.

In the end, these plans are more political than practical. They represent, as one team of researchers observed, a school or district’s “.. futile bureaucratic attempt to ‘demonstrate’ that they are doing everything possible to improve achievement.”

The business community concurs. Kouzes and Posner, two widely esteemed organizational thinkers, write that the research is in and that “Strategic planning doesn’t work….Its a process that detaches strategy from operations, thinking from doing.” Or, as Gary Hamel of Harvard business school recently wrote, strategic planning “is about as effective as dancing naked around a campfire.”

But there’s hope: a growing number of educators in our schools and districts are resisting the institutional inertia behind this failed model. And they are succeeding mightily with simple plans that focus on the collaborative structures essential to instructional improvement.

This is no pale theory: a legion of researchers in both the business and educational communities have been saying this for decades; thousands of successful schools, from urban to affluent, attest to this.

It is time to close the gap between what we know and do to promote learning. It is still the rare school that recognizes that teachers, working together, have the capacity—right now—to improve instruction. We need to give them this opportunity, to ditch much of what we now do in exchange for regular times, at least monthly, for teachers to design, refine and assess their instructional strategies. And then, just as regularly, to honor and celebrate each team’s success as they develop and share better lessons and strategies with their colleagues. It is no overstatement to say that in any school, such practices would yield immense, even immediate benefits.

All of this is within our reach. School districts, state departments of education, universities and accreditation agencies, all with their considerable clout, could lead the way. Our schools, our teachers and students deserve no less.

Dr. Mike Schmoker Schmoker is a writer, speaker and educational consultant. A former teacher and administrator, he now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. He can be reached at