Definitions, benefits, and barriers of K-12 educational strategic planning

Definitions, benefits, and barriers of K-12 educational strategic planning

Grant Hambright

This comprehensive literature review seeks to define strategic planning in a K-12 setting. Principally, it asks, what characteristics distinguish educational strategic planning from other planning approaches? What follows is a content analysis of the educational strategic planning literature detailing the critical attributes of various planning models designed specifically for K-12 educational entities. The study focuses on the issues related to K-12 strategic planning. A purposive sampling of selected literature sources was conducted. The authors analyzed 66 books, 29 journal articles, 28 research presentations from national conferences and the ERIC data base, 6 doctoral dissertations and several miscellaneous sources completed the data pool. Each evidence piece was interpreted through documentary analysis and a constant comparative approach (Glaser and Strauss, 1967, Strauss and Corbin, 1990, and Merriam, 1998). First, the data was used to develop definitions, benefits and barriers to K-12 strategic planning. Second, a comparison was made of all models of strategic planning to determine critical attributes. Finally, the elements of strategic planning were explored, listed and explained.


Strategic planning in an educational context was defined in a variety of ways in the relevant literature. Basham and Lunenburg (1989) asserted that strategic planning was not a well-defined concept; however, there exists a number of definitions pertaining to educational strategic planning. Perhaps, more specifically, Basham and Lunenburg referred to the lack of a uniform, discrete definition of educational strategic planning amongst the various prescribed planning models. From the reviewed literature, Table 1 depicts some of the various definitions associated with the concept of educational strategic planning.

The educational strategic planning definitions found in Table 1 provide insights into the concept’s underlying premises. What characteristics distinguish educational strategic planning from other planning approaches? To answer this question, Cooper (1985) provided this description:

… typical planning is generated by internal

organization goals and priorities.

The typical plan charts a course of action

to achieve these goals, accounting for

external forces primarily as obstacles

or incentives to their achievement. The

process is often formal and the product

is schematic, documenting and projecting

current activity in relation to stated

objectives of the organization. (p. 1)

Valentine (1991) provided a more detailed differentiation between typical long-range planning and strategic planning approaches. The differences between the two planning approaches are highlighted in Table 2.

Another differentiation between traditional planning approaches and strategic planning is the impetus from which the plans are developed. Strategic planning is considered to be a “grass roots” or “bottom-up” approach, where planning is accomplished with input from a variety of organizational constituents or stakeholders, as opposed to the traditional “top-down” planning typically employed and directed by central office administrators (Rieger, 1994). Mecca and Adams (1991) contended that strategic planning processes “required administrators to confront district issues which might otherwise be overlooked with conventional planning approaches” (p. 16).

Educational entities using strategic planning found that participative forms of management (e.g., decentralized decision making, shared power, shared decision-making, site-based decision-making, devolved management) were compatible and viable with this chosen planning approach (Bryson, 1995; Conley, 1994; Cook, 1995; Frese, 1996; Mauriel, 1989; McCune, 1986). Clay et al. (1989) asserted that educational strategic planning features the best features of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ management. Top management maintains its responsibility for over-all direction, but the [strategic] planning team includes broad representation of stakeholder groups. Groups are consulted and their needs assessed. Everyone gets involved in realizing the vision. (p. 22)

Conley (1994) highlighted the symbiotic relationship between strategic planning and participative management by stating that “strategic planning may be the ‘glue’ needed for decentralized decision making to succeed” (p. 35). The Aurora, CO Public School District study of change effectiveness (Frese, 1996) credited the combination of strategic planning and shared decision-making as an enabling vehicle for organizational change within their school district.

The literature contained many descriptions of purported benefits from utilizing strategic planning within a school district setting (Bell, 1989; Brown & Marshall, 1987; Bryson, 1995; Bryson &Alston, 1996; Cawelti, 1987; Clay et al., 1989; Conley, 1994; Cook; 1995; Cooper, 1985; Kaufman et al., 1996; Mecca & Adams, 1991; McCune, 1986; Pacey, 1992; Romney, 1996; Spikes, 1985; Strategic Planning Roundtable, 1993; Stone, 1987; Valentine, 1991; Wincek & O’Malley, 1997). Substantiated benefits, documented through research studies, were sparse; however, these studies reinforced some of the prescribed planning model claims regarding positive attributes garnered from utilizing strategic planning (Brown, 1996; Cooley, 1992; Frese, 1996; Hatton, 1996; Rieger, 1994). Inversely, the literature provided insights into negative elements attributed to conducting strategic planning processes in an educational organization (Brown, 1996; Bryson, 1995; Bryson &Alston, 1996; Cook, 1995; Cunningham, 1993; Hatton, 1996; Rieger, 1994; Ronmey, 1996; Schank, 1989; Spikes, 1985; Stone, 1987; Strategic Planning Roundtable, 1993; Valentine, 1991). The Strategic Planning Roundtable warned that “strategic planning models tend to be weak in provisions for evaluating the implementation of plans” (p. 4).

Another problem area was inadequate funding for the strategic planning processes (Bryson & Alston, 1996; Valentine, 1991). In referring to providing adequate resources for implementation, Brown (1996) described some interview responses that recommended

school districts not engage in [strategic

planning] unless they were willing to

provide sufficient funding at the sites

for the implementation of the action

plans … The district level administration

talked about being decentralized

when in reality they were not willing to

allocate funds to the sites to the extent

possible. (p. 142)

Another potential barrier to a positive strategic planning experience is the level of commitment to strategic planning and its subsequent action plan implementation (Bryson, 1995; Bryson & Alston, 1996; Romney, 1996). “If there is no internal commitment to the plan, and no intent to implement it, strategic planning is a waste of time and energy” (Ronmey, 1996, p. 17). The same thought prevailed in Bryson and Alston (1996) when it contended, “If the organization lacks the … commitment of key decision makers, to carry through an effective strategic planning process and produce a good plan, the effort should not be undertaken” (p. 6). “Strategic planning … probably should not be undertaken if implementation is extremely unlikely. Engaging in strategic planning when effective implementation will not follow is the organizational equivalent of the average New Year’s resolution” (Bryson, 1995, p. 9).

Inflexibility, was cited as another potential drawback of strategic planning. Bryson (1995) wrote that “too much attention to strategic planning and excessive reverence for strategic plans can blind organizations to other unplanned and unexpected–yet incredibly useful–sources of information, insight, and action” (p. 9). Likewise, the Strategic Planning Roundtable (1993) advised that “goals established through strategic planning may become fixed, hampering the flexibility schools of the future will need to be responsive to changing educational demands” (p. 4).

Other hazards associated with educational strategic planning dealt with participation issues (Brown, 1996; Stone, 1987), bureaucracy replacement, and change denial (Strategic Planning Roundtable, 1993). The number of community/parent representatives participating on the planning team was an issue in Brown’s (1996) study, as more participants from these stakeholder groups was desired. Stone (1987) asserted that unless “[those who are responsible] for carrying out the action plans [are involved] in designing them can bring about a breakdown in communications and resistance to or interruption of logical action” (p. 47). In their list of cautions to organizations considering adopting strategic planning practices, the Strategic Planning Roundtable (1993) warned about the perception that “a local strategic planning committee runs the risk of simply replacing the old bureaucratic system with another top down organization” (p. 4). They also advised that many strategic planning models overlook a pre-requisite condition for system reform, and that being a widely held belief that change is needed in the organization.


We discovered gaps in the research on educational strategic planning. These occurred as we examined empirical research on educational strategic planning to investigate the questions, methodologies, and the subsequent findings of past studies. The body of research studies for this organizational planning approach are relatively sparse and limited primarily to case study and survey methodologies. We limited our review to include only educational organizations serving kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) students, as educational organizations that utilize strategic planning processes could include higher education entities. For K-12 academic organizations using strategic planning, we reviewed the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) database, the Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI) database, and First Search databases for conference presentations, dissertations, and journal articles. The search netted 11 empirically based articles and dissertations.

We also examined several articles and books that discussed strategic planning in an educational context. In much of this literature, there were prescriptive planning models designated for academic, non-profit, and public sector organizations. From a broad-based review of empirical research, planning models and a variety of journal articles and books about educational strategic planning, gaps can be identified within the literature. The extant case studies (Frese, 1996; Hatton, 1996; Hoffman, 1997) and survey analyses (Basham & Lunenburg, 1989; Brown, 1996; Conley, 1992; Ray, 1996; Riggs & Valesky, 1990) have limited or no insights, perceptions, or experiences detailed from states whose education department and/or legislature mandate strategic planning or similar processes from K-12 educational organizations. There was a single case study (Hatton, 1996) specifically focused on a rural school district’s experiences with mandated strategic planning in Australia; however, to date, there are no similar domestic research studies. There have been several recommendations for longitudinal studies (Brown, 1996; Conley, 1993; Schank, 1989) of strategic planning effects, but none, to date, have been conducted. Another recommendation suggested that future studies were needed correlating strategic planning to increased student achievement (Brown, 1996; Rieger, 1994; Schank, 1989).

The literature is replete with educational strategic planning models, however, these models are prescriptive in their nature. Ascribed advantages to these models and their subsequent processes are suspect due to limited accounts within their literature of actual field testing or practice. Fewer than half of the reviewed educational strategic planning models contained field examples (Bryson, 1995; Clay et al., 1989; Cook, 1995; McCune, 1986; Stone, 1987; Strategic Planning Roundtable, 1993; Valentine, 1991). Unfortunately, school district personnel desiring to implement strategic planning processes within their organization will find few samples of strategic or action plans from the field. Notably lacking from the literature are clear cut methods or means for linking the strategic plans to the operational action plans. From the review of the literature, we feel that there exists no common conceptual framework for K-12 educational strategic planning. Each planning model exhibits its own particular components and terminologies. Many adaptations of the planning components and terminologies made by planning model developers and K-12 practitioners have made universal understanding and field implementation of strategic planning quite problematic. To clear this confusion, we suggest the development of a synthesized list of critical phases and components for K-12 educational strategic planning based on a content analysis of models, studies, and other literature sources.

Table 1

Definitions of Educational Strategic Planning

Definition Source

“… a creative management process powered by the Aurora Public

basic human drive to solve problems and to eliminate School District

discrepancies between what is and what must be. It (1992)

forces people and institutions to reexamine, to

refocus, and to seek out or create new means of

accomplishing their purposes” (p. 7)

“… a process that is designed to move an Brown &

educational organization through the steps of Marshall, 1987

understanding changes in the external environment,

assessing the internal strengths and weaknesses of

the organization, developing a vision of the desired

future for the organization and some ways to achieve

that mission, developing specific plans to get the

organization where it is to where it wants to be,

implementing these plans and monitoring that

implementation so that necessary changes or

modifications can be made” (p. 3)

“… a disciplined effort to produce fundamental Bryson, 1995

decisions and actions that shape and guide what an

organization is, what it does, and why it does it. To

deliver the best results, strategic planning requires

broad yet effective information gathering,

development and exploration of strategic

alternatives, and an emphasis on future implications

of present decisions” (p. 5)

“… a process deliberately designed to help leaders Cawelti, 1987

conceive of the kind of institution they would like

to create to serve their students” (p. 7)

“… the means by which an organization continually Cook, 1995

re-creates itself toward extraordinary purpose”

(p. 41)

“… the method by which an organization identifies Cooper, 1985

relevant trends in its environment, analyzes their

potential implications, and projects an integrated

strategy to address these future events and their

contingencies” (p. 1)

“… a community-based and on-going process of Cordell &

imagining a preferred future and then developing the Waters, 1993

strategic and operational actions required to make

that future a reality” (p. 27)

“… in its most powerful form [strategic planning] Kaufman, 1996

starts with society as the primary client and

beneficiary and then rolls-down from that to identify

what any organisation commits to deliver. This

approach assures the linkages among what

organizations use, do, produce, and deliver, and

external consequences” (p. 61)

“… a process for organizational renewal and McCune, 1986

transformation … (which) provides a framework for

improvement and restructuring of programs,

management, collaborations, and evaluation of the

organization’s progress” (p. 34)

“By using information about emerging trends and Mecca & Adams,

developments gleaned through a process of 1991

environmental scanning, the [strategic planning

process] … allows district planners to anticipate

plausible alternative futures from which to derive

appropriate strategic goals. These goals form both

the district’s collective ‘visible’ for the future

and a basis for ongoing operational planning and

management” (p. 16)

“… the process by which the guiding members of an Pfeiffer,

organization envision the organization’s future and Goodstein, &

develop the necessary procedures and operations no Nolan, 1989

achieve that future. The vision of the future

provides both a direction and the energy to move in

that direction … successful strategic planning is

characterized by organizational self examination,

confronting difficult choices, and setting

priorities” (p. 56)

“… a practical process for dealing with the Romney, 1996

ambiguities of the environment. Its purpose is to

move the organization from being a pawn to changing

events to being a proactive participant, making

decisions about and acting to create is own future.

It requires organizational flexibility to adapt and

revise as conditions change, and a willingness to

move beyond obsolete paradigms” (p. 14)

“… a series of planned steps to move a school Strategic

district from its current state to a desired future Planning

state” (p. 4) Roundtable,


“… leads to the identification of a sense of Valentine, 1991

direction for the organization, helps assess internal

and external environments, and provides a unified

direction to the planning function. Skillful

application of the techniques of strategic management

can bring an organization’s goals into focus.

Administrators can then see immediate results and at

the same time anticipate future trends. Conceptually,

strategic management provides a framework for

successful organizational change” (p. 2)

“a process that draws together the thinking of the Wincek &

community and gives stakeholders an opportunity to O’Malley, 1997

articulate their hopes for the future of the school,

address issues that need attention and come to

agreement on priorities” (p. 20)

Table 2

Strategic Planning Versus Long-range Planning

Long-range planning Strategic planning

Assumes a closed system within Assumes an open system in which

which organizational five- and organizations are dynamic and

ten-year blueprints could be constantly changing as they

constructed. integrate information from

shifting environmental factors.

Focuses on the final blueprint Focuses on the process

Its application of formulas Is rational because it

assumes rationality but is incorporates the reality of the

inadequate, as it gives too little irrational.

attention to values, politics, and

changed circumstances.

Tends toward internal analysis, Focuses on the external

toward planning as a separate environment, on qualitative

institutional function information and intuitive

decisions regarding resource

commitments, and on integrated,

participatory involvement

Makes decisions about the future Uses current and future trends to

based on present data. make current, not future,


Emphasizes the science of Emphasizes creativity,

planning, management, and decision innovativeness, and intuition–the

art of planning, management, and

making decision making.

Focuses on organizational goals Asks what decision is appropriate

and objectives five years in the today based on a projection of

future. critical external variables five

years from now.

Note. From Strategic Management in Education: A Focus on Strategic

Planning (p. 16), by E.P. Valentine, 1991, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


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Grant Hambright, Assistant Professor and Thomas Diamantes, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Leadership, Wright State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Thomas Diamantes, Associate Professor, Educational Administration, Department of Educational Leadership, 3640 Colonel Glenn Hwy., Dayton, OH 45435-0001; Email:

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