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Strategy in Action

Rachel CurtisTo build a successful school district, a strong and coherent strategy is vital. Over the course of her career, education strategy consultant Rachel Curtis, Ed.M.’94, has worked with school systems, foundations, and education policy organizations to develop their leadership teams and strategies with the goal of overall district improvement. This spring, Curtis –- with Lecturer Elizabeth City -- will co-chair HGSE’s professional development session Strategy in Action, a program designed to help system or district leadership teams cultivate a concrete vision and create well-defined strategies that focus on the instructional core. In this Q&A, Curtis discusses the program and the reasons a strong strategy is so critical. 

In an era where time and resources are so limited, why does a strong strategy matter now more than ever?

Given the incredible demands schools and school systems have to respond to in a context of constrained resources, strategy is essential to help educators stay focused and be very clear about their priorities.

Strategy is the mechanism by which organizations identify the few highest-leverage things they can do to drive learning and then align their resources (time, people and money) to those things. It is about concerted effort, focusing tightly and deeply on a few things, with the goal of realizing significant gains.

While nobody relishes difficult financial times, these conditions provide an opportunity for educators to make tough decisions about what is most important to do for children. The approach of working really hard at a lot of things without a clear strategy becomes untenable when budgets and staffing are cut. It is in these moments that organizations can become incredibly focused and think in creative new ways about how to approach their work.

With new initiatives coming at a break-neck pace, why is it crucial for educators to stop and take stock of their strategies?

Schools and school systems are often on the receiving end of lots of new and exciting opportunities. Sometimes these are state or federal mandates that can’t be ignored. Other times they are initiatives created by outside partners in an effort to be helpful.

With mandates, the trick is how to integrate those things with the organization’s strategy in a way that is supportive of the strategy and synergistic rather than distracting. For example, Liz City and I worked with superintendents in Massachusetts when the state had just introduced new teacher evaluation regulations. The critical question we tried to help superintendents answer was, “How can you use the new evaluation regulations to support your strategy?” If a critical element of the district’s strategy is to build an aligned system of standards, curriculum, instructional practices, and assessment in literacy, how can evaluation support that? How can the teaching standards embedded in the evaluation explicitly address these things through its expectations for planning, use of data to drive instruction, and instructional strategies?

With initiatives created by outside partners, the fundamental question is the same. What’s different is that there is often more room to refine the initiative to support the organization’s strategy or, if that’s not possible, to choose not to pursue it if it will distract the system from its strategy. It’s hard to walk away from opportunities, but the truth is that many of these opportunities distract systems from the work they have identified as most important, which then makes them less effective. The strategic plan, assuming it is tightly focused, provides the litmus test for making the difficult decisions about what the system will and will not do.

Also, taking stock of your strategy is critical. Implementation never goes quite as you expect, so it is good to periodically stop and assess what’s happening, what’s working and not working, and what adjustments you want to make.

Leaders are expected to produce concrete outcomes. What can teams expect to accomplish during the program and how will it impact their work when they return home?

Teams will be introduced to and have the chance to work with a series of tools that will deepen their understanding of strategy, assess the level of strategy reflected in their system’s work, and strengthen their existing strategy or begin to develop a new one. In the program, teams will look at their current work and try to discern the actual, lived strategy (not necessarily what’s written down!) based on the way they are spending their time and money. Then they will have the chance to think audaciously about their vision for students in their care and what they want to make possible for them. The rest of the program focuses on steps to take to traverse the space between the current conditions and the vision the team has articulated — that is strategy.

Teams who come to the program with a strategy in place will leave with a clear sense of how to strengthen their strategy and will have made significant steps towards refining it.

Teams that come with the goal of developing a strategy will learn how to do that in a focused, coherent and synergistic way, and will leave with the beginning of their strategy emerging and a clear sense of how to continue the work back home.

We will also support teams in stepping back and thinking about how they function and how that supports or distracts from strategy. We will work explicitly on how leadership teams in schools and school systems can be organized and function in ways that are very strategic and support the development, execution and monitoring of a robust strategy.

Applications for Strategy in Action are now being accepted. For more information or to apply, visit gse.harvard.edu/ppe/sia.