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 .
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.