Strategic planning is one of the more popular management approaches in organizations, consistently ranked among the five most popular managerial approaches worldwide1. Public school systems have the power to authentically engage communities and stakeholders in the development of strategic plans. The purpose is to collectively construct organizational plans to achieve a high quality educational experience for children.
Given the time and money school districts spend on these efforts, we set out to scan their strategic plans across the United States, reviewing both urban and rural settings, to understand commonalities and differences in these plans. This brief summarizes the key categories currently emphasized in district strategic plans and offers three promising trends to that may strengthen implementation: (1) the increased engagement of families and community in the planning process; (2) the inclusion of pandemic-era strategies (e.g., social and emotional
learning, maximizing out of school time; and (3) the need for increased school principal engagement in implementation.
Overview of the Report
The purpose of this report is to track and organize the high-level aims of public education strategic plans. According to AASA, the School Superintendents Association, educators believe in the power of plans and are devoted to district strategic planning. To understand this ambition further, we conducted a qualitative Iterative Analysis of Strategic Plans, examining publicly available strategic plans, organizational charts, learning standards and other publicly available guidance documents found on school district (local education agency or LEA) websites. This scan centered on investigating the following questions:
- What themes and patterns exist regarding funding priorities across city and rural districts strategic planning priorities?
- What notable similarities and differences exist between city and rural LEAs’ strategic plans regarding their funding priorities?
- What novel or innovative approaches appear in urban and rural LEAs’ strategic plans?
The scan identified prominent categories and themes that emerged in these plans across the United States today. Our broader goal is to annually examine the development of new plans and adaptations of existing plans, particularly in the post-pandemic context.
To analyze the content of the plans we used the “SCIP” categories for organization and review purposes: Systems, Culture, Instruction, and People. A deeper description of SCIP is found below.
Research Question 1: What themes and patterns exist regarding funding priorities across city and rural LEAs’ strategic planning priorities?
Theme 1.1: City and rural districts indicated similar priorities in strategic planning
● The percentages of total codes for each SCIP component for city and rural districts were within no more than 2 percentage points;
● Communication practices are an area of focus that consistently appear across city and rural strategic plans
Theme 1.2: Data strongly shows increased communication, collaboration, and transparency with parents and the local community are high priorities nationwide
● 80% of strategic plans (90% of rural; 73% of city) reference more collaboration in the community at least once
● 75% of strategic plans ( 75% of rural; 65% of city) reference more collaboration and/or transparency with parents
● While there is a great enthusiasm for increased communications, relatively few plans propose a system for achieving it.
Theme 1.3: Social-emotional learning (SEL) appears most frequently as a strategy for addressing culture and/or instruction across all strategic plans
● 22% of strategic plans (21% of rural; 23% of city) reference SEL as a strategy for addressing culture and instruction both in-school and during out-of-school time
● The term ‘Whole child’ in reference to strategies for culture and instruction appeared in 14% of city districts
Research Question 2: What notable similarities and differences exist between city and rural LEAs’ strategic plans regarding their funding priorities?
Theme 2.1: Rural LEAs less likely to use the term ‘equity’
● 48% of strategic plans use the term ‘equity’ in their strategic plan, with 60% of city LEAs and 33% or rural LEAs
● City LEA strategic plans were observed to most commonly tie the term ‘equity’ to identity and belonging, while rural LEAs more commonly use ‘equity’ to reference the allocation of instructional resources and labor.
Theme 2.2: Strategic plans may be less common in rural LEAs, but a high number of rural districts were identified to be starting or partway through the strategic planning process for the first time. Like their urban counterparts, rural districts were required to prepare and present pandemic relief plans, might be converting to district wide implementation plans
● The researcher had an unexpectedly difficult time locating rural LEAs that have a current or recent strategic plan, while publicly available strategic plans are far more common with city LEAs.
● In nearly every state, the research did find a rural LEA that are currently in a 1-2 year strategic planning process
Research Question 3: What novel or innovative approaches appear in LEAs’ strategic plans?
Theme 3.1: Equity is embedded in systems-, culture-, instructional-, and people-based strategies
● Strategies for equity were frequently integrated into all four SCIP components
● Though rural LEAs were observed to use the term ‘equity’ less frequently, they use known equitable strategies while avoiding mentioning race (e.g. a commitment to hiring educators who have similar life experiences to students)
Theme 3.2: Communication as an Equity Strategy
● The majority of identified communication strategies across all strategic plans implicitly or explicitly address educational equity.
● Large number of strategic plans across both rural and city LEAs are emphasizing communication practices in response to explicit feedback from parents during the strategic planning process.
Theme 3.3: Maximizing OST
● There is growing momentum for maximizing out-of-school time for enrichment and whole child development.
● 20% of the reviewed strategic plans (25% city; 15% rural) referenced the term ‘afterschool,’ ‘after-school,’ or ‘after school’ as part of their strategic priorities. An additional 4% of reviewed strategic plans (all from city districts) referenced the term ‘out of school time,’ out-of-sch
Local Education Agency Selection
The process for selecting LEAs to include in this study was based on the National Center for Educational Statistics’ (NCES) locale classifications. Below are the processes for selecting one city district and one rural district from each state to include in the scan (100 total):
Selecting City LEAs
The research team obtained the latest strategic plan from a Local Education Agency (LEA) in each state that serves a large city population with the highest number of students. If the identified LEA did not have a publicly available strategic plan, the researchers used the strategic plan from the large urban LEA with the next highest student population. If no LEA primarily serves students in areas that meet the NCES’s definition of a large city, the LEA with the highest student population serving students in a designated ‘midsize city’ was selected.
Selecting Rural LEAs
The research team used the National Center for Education Research’s Locale Look-up tool to select a rural Local Education Agency (LEA) in each state to include in the study. The selected LEAs met two criteria: all their schools are in areas defined as remote rural by the NCES and they have a publicly available current or recently completed strategic plan. If no LEA meeting both criteria could be found, then researchers chose an LEA that includes areas classified as distant rural, fringe rural, and remote town
Investment = intention to do something (themes, goals, aims)
LEA Selection Process
The process for selecting LEAs to include in this study was based on the National Center for Educational Statistics’ (NCES) locale classifications. Below are the processes for selecting one city district and one rural district from each state to collect a strategic plan from (100 total).
- Selecting City LEAs
- Researchers collected the most recent strategic plan from an LEA in each state that primarily serves a large city population LEA with the highest student population in each state. If the identified LEA does not have a publicly available strategic plan, then the strategic plan from the large urban LEA with the next largest student population was used.
Two coders (Coder 1 & Coder 2) reviewed 50 strategic plans each, counting instances of stated priorities in a strategic plan aligned with the four components of the SCIP framework. Additionally, Coder 2 did a second coding of 20 strategic plans from Coder 1’s batch to create a comparison sample. Analysis of the overlapping sample showed the two coders had 96% agreement, indicating that they had an aligned and consistent understanding of the SCIP framework and how it appears in strategic plans.
In addition to the descriptive statistics produced from coding with the SCIP framework, the research team analyzed the strategic using iterative thematic inquiry. This analysis method privileges a pragmatic lens by aiming to identify themes with the most practical implications. We recommend future analysis include a further refinement of the strategic plan data set and a more detailed definition of ‘strategic plan’ informed by our findings from this scan. Future scans will include a coding system expanded to include ‘look-fors’ and specific examples for each component, based on feedback from strategic plan managers in LEA settings.
Results of SCIP Coding
Overall, SCIP is a comprehensive framework that shows up across each of the plans we scanned.
There is a high match of this framework when comparing urban and rural systems. Both groups have a high categorical match. They were identical in the prioritization of Instruction in their respective plans.
Of the four SCIP categories, 79 of the 100 LEAs have three or more categories represented. The highest representation is in Instruction, and the second-highest representation is in Culture, signaling that learning recovery and barriers to learning remain prime concerns for schools, school systems, and communities. People was noticeably the lowest represented category, despite the dramatic national outcry for a skilled instructional workforce. To understand this further, a national survey of strategic plan managers, etc.
Local school districts serve as the drivers of strategic plans, reflecting emerging trends in the public education landscape. Understanding the commonalities and differences in funding priorities, identifying innovative approaches, and tracking the evolving educational aspirations landscape is critical for anticipating future policy and practice needs in both urban and rural school settings.
- Both city and rural districts demonstrated comparable priorities in strategic planning with minor variations.
- Communication practices emerged as a consistent priority, indicating increased collaboration and transparency with parents and the local community.
Maximizing High-Quality OST:
- Leveraging after-school programs is widely recognized as a key opportunity to offer enrichment, development, and purpose to students.
Notable Similarities and Differences Between City and Rural LEAs:
- Equity Terminology:
- The term ‘equity’ was less commonly used in rural strategic plans compared to city plans. City plans tied ‘equity’ to identity and belonging, while rural plans linked it more often to resource allocation.
Public school systems actively engage in strategic planning, aligning their efforts with overarching goals of educational excellence, equity, and innovation. The findings underscore the importance of communication, collaboration, and transparency in strategic planning, as well as the ongoing adaptation of these plans in response to evolving educational contexts, particularly post-pandemic challenges and societal shifts. The report recommends ongoing monitoring and examination of new plans to ensure responsiveness to changing needs in public education.
In this first-generation scan, it is observed that public school systems are effectively using strategic planning to enhance the quality of education for children. Engaging communities and stakeholders in the development of strategic plans is a crucial step in ensuring that the plans reflect the diverse needs and perspectives of the local population. The following recommendations are made for future planning and monitoring:
Increased Engagement of Families and Community:
- Recognize the importance of collaboration between schools and the broader community.
- Involve families and community members in the planning process to ensure educational goals align with local values and expectations.
- Foster a sense of ownership and support for the school system.
Inclusion of Pandemic-era Strategies with Strong LOI (Learning Outcome Impact):
- Incorporate strategies that address the unique needs of students and educators during pandemic times.
- Prioritize social and emotional learning to reflect an understanding of the holistic development of students.
- Maximize out-of-school time, acknowledging the need for flexible learning approaches beyond traditional classroom settings.
Increased School Principal Engagement in Implementation:
- Recognize the crucial role of school principals in translating strategic plans into actionable steps at the school level.
- Increase engagement of principals in the implementation phase to ensure effective execution of strategies and alignment with overall district goals.
- Principals serve as key leaders who can inspire teachers and students to work towards the objectives outlined in the strategic plan.
A strong education strategic plan can catalyze communities, reflecting a clear vision for the future of education and student success, emphasizing innovative practices and school-based leadership opportunities. It is recommended to conduct a broader, annual scan that considers both urban and rural settings to identify commonalities and differences, contributing to the improvement of education systems nationwide. This ongoing analysis will help education leaders adapt and refine strategic plans to meet the evolving needs of students and communities.