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Vince Matrisciano is a Project Management Engineer who worked for the Department of Defense for over 30 years, managing complex projects, large groups of people, and leading process and organizational change activities. He is a certified Project Management Professional, Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and Human Capital Strategist. He now owns his own consulting firm and can be reached at Vince@MatriscianoConsulting.com.
Did you know that in 2020 Newark Public Schools (NPS) released a ten year strategic plan to improve the school system? This document promises a comprehensive road map that guides the priorities and strategies that will best help fulfill the mission and vision . It includes the mission, vision, core values, a theory of action, priorities, and strategies, and establishes the methodology by which progress will continuously be assessed and measured. This is an important and essential step in the improvement of Newark’s public schools.
However, as we all have heard many times, the devil is in the details. This plan has many details, which translate to many devils.
I’ve been generating and implementing strategic plans for over twenty years in my public sector career, with varying degrees of success. Although essential for any business entity (including not-for-profit and governmental), their effectiveness is typically very minimal. That is because the essential second step is rarely followed, or it is not followed well. A strategic plan is just that, a plan. It describes “what” the organization wants to accomplish (vision, values, objectives, etc.). A really good strategic plan also describes “how” it should be done and “how” progress will be measured. Without that key second step defining the “how”, it remains just a pretty document on a virtual shelf. The “how” must be specific, it must be measurable, it must be actionable, it must be realistic, and it must be time-bound. All too often stated goals and objectives are loosely defined, have no measurable effects, and are not feasible given existing budget, time, and resource constraints. Even well-stated goals and objectives can fail due to cultural apathy (i.e., passive resistance) and general aversion to change. Continuous care and effort are required to truly implement the strategic vision that is documented in the plan.
And so it is with the NPS Strategic Plan. On a positive note, the plan is very well written and describes the “what” with sufficient detail with six top level priorities, each with a number of more specific strategies. There is an attempt to time-phase the expectations for each strategy and to define some measures (as milestones, signposts and guardrails). The Priorities include not only academics (A Rigorous and Relevant Framework for Curriculum and Instruction, Continuous Learning for All, & Integrated System of Supports), but also address the cultural (Strength-Based and Responsive Culture, & Strong Reciprocal Partnerships) and administrative (Unified and Aligned Systems) aspects that must be addressed to effect change. Overall, it is a very comprehensive document that defines what needs to be done over the next decade.
But as noted above, the all-important “how” is not sufficiently addressed in this strategic plan. Perhaps there are supplemental documents that I’m unaware of, but this strategic plan on its own does not provide enough detail on how the strategy will be implemented. For example, the first strategy that supports Priority #3—“Strength-Based and Responsive Culture”—states “Communicate a shared vision and plan for developing, supporting, and sustaining positive culture and climate in all classrooms, schools, and departments across the district”. A near term goal (2020-2021) is stated as “Develop a district-wide Positive Culture Rubric to guide the transformation of culture throughout the district.” This all sounds great, and not many people would disagree with these goals. But how this is done is not discussed, and how this is done is of critical importance. It is literally the difference between success and failure. An effective rubric will be developed by engaging all stakeholders and including their diverse inputs, as well as applying currently accepted academic truth. An ineffective rubric will be developed by a small group of like-minded individuals with implicit biases.
How is NPS doing it?
We don’t know.
Additionally, the milestones, signposts, and guardrails are meant to provide measures to assess progress, but those too are not specific enough. A milestone for Priority 3 states “Percentage of school leaders scoring as effective or highly effective on the school culture domain on their annual evaluation increases.” Although there is an attempt to quantify this measure (increased percentage of school leaders), it lacks specificity (how much of a percentage?), it does not state how it will be measured, does not state how school leaders can achieve the “effective” or “highly effective” score, and does not time-phase the increases in percentages. Further, the document states that root causes were identified, and strategies were formulated to address them. However, those root causes are not delineated in the document, so their linkage to the strategies is not apparent. Linking strategy and action to root causes is a foundational effort and determines success or failure. If actions are not linked to root causes, they will not solve the problem (and may even make it worse). If actions are linked to root causes, one can continuously assess progress toward the elimination of those root causes.
But all is not lost. Here are five things NPS should do that will greatly increase the probability of success for the plan. These are meant to address common root causes of this strategic plan failure .
- Create Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time based (SMART) measures that will demonstrate progress for each goal enumerated in the strategic plan. Each measured goal should link directly to a root cause of a particular problem being addressed. If root causes have not adequately been identified, a formal root cause analysis must be completed. Otherwise, the wrong problems will be addressed, and positive change will not occur. Additionally, define who will continuously monitor, report, and react to the progress of each measure. Progress against each measure should be reported and discussed in an open forum, such as a Board of Education meeting, to ensure transparency. While implementing these measures, all involved stakeholders need to understand that a failure to meet a particular measurement goal is not a failure of the plan, it is an opportunity to examine the program and make necessary adjustments that satisfy all stakeholders. As an example, the first milestone listed in the document is “Percentage of employees reporting they have the resources and support needed to be successful in their jobs increases.” A SMART version of that would be (these numbers are fictional) “Increase the percentage of employees reporting they have the resources and support needed to be successful in their jobs by 5% each year. The baseline percentage in 2020, taken from the Formal Name of survey was 35%. In 2021 the goal is 40%, in 2022 it’s 45%, etc. Results will be tabulated each year by name of group and presented at an annual Town Hall meeting. This addresses the root cause structuring the survey questions.
- Create a detailed communication and implementation plan that addresses action down to each individual classroom so that each teacher and student knows what is expected and how the strategy should be implemented. Continuously collaborate with stakeholders and communicate and adjust the implementation of the strategy to ensure it remains effective. As written, the strategic plan is vague in describing the goals. For example, the word “equity” is mentioned over fifty times in the document. But does everyone involved with implementing the plan have a common understanding of what “equity” means? Some may hold the Merriam-Webster definition “freedom from bias or favoritism,” some may think equity means disproportionately favoring traditionally underrepresented, and some may think it means disproportionately favoring the minority population, which in the case of Newark Public Schools are whites and Asians. How an individual defines equity dictates how they act, and with varying definitions, there will be varying and sometimes conflicting actions.
- Include implementation of the strategic plan in performance objectives of all teachers, support staff and administrators, including BoE members, union representatives, and union leadership. Define what their measurable responsibilities and expectations are, how they will be held accountable to those expectations, and what authority they hold to execute their responsibilities. The strategic plan describes “guardrails” at a high level, but they need to be defined at the individual employee and classroom level. Teachers and others need to fully understand what they are allowed to do and, more importantly, what they are NOT allowed to do. It is also important to communicate that negative individual consequences will be strictly and evenly enforced if they do not execute their responsibilities.
- Acknowledge current, real organizational values. Every organization has both current values and aspiration values, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they are very different. Aspired values are those listed in the strategic plan, what the organization wants to be. Current values are what exist, even if they are not acknowledged or wanted. Current values are driven by a combination of the people who make up the organization, and the way those people are managed and led. Performance objectives are a key indicator of current values. What are employees graded on? If it is submitting reports on time, then the current value is “paperwork.” If it is attendance, then the current value is “showing up.” A change process is required to shift the current values towards the organization’s aspired values. This usually requires a true culture shift, specifically focused on management and leadership tactics, and the effort should not be underestimated.
- Continuously engage all stakeholders in the implementation of the strategic plan. Stakeholders include all employees (teachers, administration, support staff), unions, students, parents, local business, local universities, local community centers, local government, pre-schools, healthcare facilities, etc. All stakeholders need to believe in the implementation and believe that they are a valuable part of it. This diversity of thought will create management and leadership challenges, as some perspectives will contradict. But District Leadership and the BoE must take this challenge head on to ensure that all voices are heard, and all input is fairly considered. This needs to be a formal process (regular BoE meetings, Town halls, etc.), for if it is done ad hoc, it will be forgotten and neglected, a loss of diversity will result and stakeholders will be frustrated and angry. The Strategic Plan states that it is “Designed to maximize transparency and engagement”. This is the only way to achieve full transparency.
Instituting these five things will not be easy (which is why so many organizations don’t). But if the leadership at NPS truly wants to continuously improve the schools and the students, it must earnestly include all these aspects in the implementation of this great plan. I join others in anticipation of the day when the Newark Public School System is among the best in New Jersey, the nation, and the world.