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Preventing Planning Pitfalls

District leaders complete a strategic plan that takes all kinds of time and money and then a big, expensive binder of abstract goals sits on a shelf doing nothing more than collecting dust. It happens a lot.


Clearly, that’s bad. So, we’ve put this blog together to help you answer three questions as you think about long-term planning and your summer data retreats.


1) Do strategic plans actually work?

2) What mistakes should you avoid when making your strategic plan?

3) How can School Perceptions help you avoid those mistakes?


Before we go any further though, we need define what a strategic plan is.


In short, where do you want to go, and how are you going to get there?


If you’re inclined for a more academic definition, we like this one from Lane, Bishop, and Wilson-Jones (2005).


A strategic plan establishes a vision, mission, and beliefs for the school district; the plan establishes the path to accomplish its desired future; the plan provides for a path which allows the community to work together to accomplish these goals, objectives, and activities that constitute the strategic plan; it allows for an understanding of how a school district works, how finances are spent, and identifies the needs of the school district; and allows the school district to set specific data-driven priorities.


1) Do strategic plans actually work?




  • Effective plans contribute to the tenure of a superintendent. Longevity in the superintendent position is associated with the stability of a school district and its long-term efforts. These, in turn, are associated with increased student achievement. The alternative is a “reactive, short-sighted, and rudderless” organization that struggles to “maintain legitimacy.”

  • Strategic plans allow district leadership to engage with stakeholders and communicate with constituents in a collaborative dialogue. People who feel they can make contributions are more likely, then, to support district initiatives.

  • A plan that provides a clear vision and direction to the community attracts families and helps the district compete with other schools in a school choice environment.

  • Plans prevent “repetitive change syndrome,” i.e., the cynicism, anxiety, and burnout that define an organization when change is not met proactively or flavor-of-the-day initiatives jolt staff between disconnected goals.

  • Districts with established strategic planning cycles become more analytical, less blaming, and more solution focused.

  • Plans can bind together disparate schools with a common purpose and provide guidelines against which all other subplans can be measured.


2) What mistakes should you avoid when making your strategic plan?


  • Self-selection: People with the loudest voice, the strongest passion, or the biggest axe to grind may join committees and attempt to push the strategic plan in a direction that does not best represent the community as a whole. The planning process must include teachers/staff, parents, community members, and students.

  • Dishonest or incomplete self-assessments: Dishonest self-assessment hides warts and pursues a plan that does not address the district’s actual needs.

  • Unwritten but “real” missions: Many districts are run with unwritten mission statements. If these norms run counter to the developing strategic plan, it will not work. For instance, if the unwritten “mission” of the district is that all employees are expected to follow and not question the decrees of central staff, a strategic plan that articulates anything else will not take hold.

  • Vague buzzwords: This makes people cynical, detached, and confused. Unhelpful plans are guided by mission statements laced with buzzwords that lack definition. One researcher summarized a bad plan example: “We will help each student meet their full potential by developing a full set of college and career ready, 21st century skills to create lifelong learners.” Huh? If the mission statement is nothing but common sense or things you can’t measure, it’s not much of a mission.


3) How can School Perceptions help you avoid those mistakes?


Our community planning survey goes to each household in your district because you can’t only rely on the folks that have time to show up to an evening planning meeting. They tend to skew older and wealthier. Your quieter voices are just as important (and often more numerous) than your louder voices.


This community-wide data collection point will not only show you how are you doing but also how you compare to other, similar schools (just like our staff, student, and parent surveys). The data may reveal roses but also the thorns that come with them. You need to identify these spots and fix them before they poke you. (See what we did there?)


Questions you’ll get answered by topic:



  • How does your community want to hear from you?

  • What does your community want to learn about in those communications?

  • How satisfied is the community with your communication efforts?

  • Do community members feel like they have enough channels for input on your schools’ direction?



  • Do people feel the schools are safe and secure?

  • Do the schools have community and parent support?

  • Are your schools heading in the right direction?

  • Are leaders doing what it takes to make your schools successful?


Academics & Development:

  • Do schools have high expectations for students?

  • Are your schools’ learning priorities focused on the right areas?

  • Are there effective community and business partnerships in place?


Long-Term Planning

  • What programs and services should your schools provide in the future?

  • Where should your schools’ limited resources be focused?


Graduate Success

  • What academic areas are most important for students?

  • What social skills areas are most important for students?


If these questions don’t get you what you need, we can customize questions specific to you. We can also gather open-ended comments and suggestions from your respondents with research-based, qualitative analyses.


What’s more, we have ready-made, ready-to-implement indexes. Indexes use key questions from throughout the survey to give you a snapshot of how you’re doing. These quantifiable indexes can become a pillar of your plan that then become easy to measure repeatedly over time for growth or decline.


Bill, our boss, often says that, if you’re lost in the woods, a map doesn’t do much good if you don’t know where you are.


We’ll help you find out where you are.


* I would be remiss as a researcher with my APA citations. If you’re curious about where these findings came from, reach out, and I’ll be happy to provide.  


The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Rob DeMeuse, Research Director.


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