Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in
teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
The Mirage of School Improvement Planning
Certainly, by now, schools should know that “strategic planning doesn’t work” – and never
did (Kouzes & Posner, 1995, p. 244). Like so many initiatives, it was embraced on a massive scale
in the absence of any evidence of effectiveness. As Bruce Joyce writes, elaborate improvement
planning “has failed miserably and in plain sight” (2004, p. 76).
But damn the facts. Schools, districts, and state education departments continue to commit to
these multipage planning templates that guarantee “fragmentation and overload” (Fullan, 1996, p.
420) – and thus failure. A recent study in Kentucky confirmed what was already abundantly clear:
that the most common, elaborate forms of improvement planning have a negative relationship to
achievement (Kannapel & Clements, 2005); they reduce the chances for improvement. “Formal
planning,” Pfeffer and Sutton write, is “essentially unrelated to organizational performance” (2000,
p. 43). The best studies point to how this model diverts organizations from their core purposes.
Collins observes that such plans ensure that organizations become “scattered and diffused, moving
on many levels” – doomed to “pursue many ends at the same time” (2001a, p. 91; for a full treatment
of this issue, see Schmoker, 2004).
It turns out that “simple plans” work best – those with a direct focus on straightforward
actions and opportunities (Collins, 2001a, p. 177). In education, we need to stay focused on the
opportunities we’ve already described. To address these clear shortcomings, our best “plan” is to
arrange for teachers to analyze their achievement data, set goals, and then meet at least twice a month
– for 45 minutes or so. That way, they can help one another ensure that they are teaching essential
standards and using assessment results to improve the quality of their lessons.
I’ve looked a hundreds of plans, almost all done in accordance with templates required by
well-meaning districts, accreditation agencies, and state education departments. I’ve gone over these
templates with officials from these agencies. Even they admit, on close examination, to the havoc
that is wrought by these lengthy, ambiguously worded documents.
Then why do we persist? One state education department document contained more than 130
requirements. A state official agreed with me that any five of these could overwhelm most schools
or systems while having little or no impact on what is taught or how well. We agreed that these
templates precluded focused effort. But the official said what I often hear: that too many people had
invested too much time in these plans and processes and they couldn’t be changed.
Yes, they can. And they must. We’ll explore this thoroughly in chapters 9 and 10. In one
district where I worked, we couldn’t resist the allure of elaborate “school improvement planning,”
despite the absence of evidence that it had been effective anywhere. We were convinced that the
needs assessments and surveys and programs and workshops and conference attendance and staff
development days and book studies and action steps that filled the columns and boxes of our thick
plans would have a palpable effect on instruction. We were wrong; like most staff development
efforts, ours looked great but were wired for failure (Guskey, 2003; Stiggins, 1999; Corcoran,
Fuhrman, & Belcher, 2001; Schmoker, 2004).
All this planning and training ensured “lots of change, but not much improvement” (Elmore,
2000, p. 12). It diverted us from focusing on the most starkly simple elements of quality and
improvement – like a common curriculum, lack of which made improvement impossible. Curricular
chaos may be the most destructive, if unintended, effect of the buffer. In the next chapter, we’ll see
how teachers can work together to bring order to that chaos – an order that focuses on student