Coaching Letter #134

Good morning, I hope this finds you well. Right now we have about 18 inches of snow at our house. I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about how nice it is to be able to work from home in my pajamas, but maybe not. I’ve been thinking a lot about what we should be doing to prepare for the next phase of life-during-and-after-Covid, but first I need to let you know about my book—which was just published—ask for your help publicizing it, and tell you about a webinar that the Center is holding in the New Year. This is a longer Coaching Letter than usual buy hey, it’s not every day I get a book published, and besides, it’s a snow day.

The book is The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders, which I co-wrote with Jennie Weiner. We wrote it because we both had experience with district and school plans that were written because they had to be submitted, therefore had more to do with compliance than actually driving the work of improving student learning. We thought we could help people move away from the performative aspect of writing a plan to the more constructive activity of working with others to plan backwards from a vision for student success. As Eisenhower said, “A plan is useless, but planning is indispensable.”

The book is a plea to think differently about strategic planning. It is in many respects a continuation of this article that I wrote for the Kappan, about the flaws in the way we frequently go about creating plans. Honestly, some of my favorite lines are in that article:

“It has often been noted that while all organizations have a mission statement, not all of them have a mission. Just so, while most organizations have a plan, few of them have a strategy.”

“Old strategies are abandoned because scores have not improved, without sufficient questioning about why they failed and without adequate reason to believe that the next initiative will have a better chance of success. When things go wrong, they tend to assume that it is the fault of the people implementing the plan, not a flaw in the plan’s design.”

“The plan is a product that is supposed to be a proxy for a process, but an intense focus on creating the plan can itself distract from the details of how it will be implemented.”

The book makes the case that strategic planning should be based on four principles: equity, logic, capacity, and coherence; that we should plan backwards from high aspirations for all students; that districts should take responsibility for creating a shared understanding of high quality instruction; and that we need to get better at getting better. In case you need additional convincing, Dylan Wiliam called it “a remarkable and useful book”, and Andy Hargreaves described it as “the antithesis of everything you assumed or imagined about strategic planning.”

It’s weird to have a book come out during a pandemic, and not be able to host get-togethers and parties. But hey, if waiting a few months to have a party is the worst thing that happens this year, that will be a blessing. And then on Friday, when I was on Amazon looking for the dimensions of the book for shipping, I saw that it was listed as the #1 new release in educational administration. Not only that, it was in the top 15 sellers in educational administration—that may only last a hot minute, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. When I told my son this, he just started laughing: “Yes, Mom, that’s a really hot genre.”

My colleagues at the Center hosted a little online celebration in my honor at our staff meeting on Tuesday, which was the official publication date. They said all sorts of lovely things about me, but I have my own gratitude to express. I have the best colleagues on the planet, but some particular moments stand out from the last few years when I was really deep into thinking about strategy: Richard pointing out to me, when I was all excited about a particular planning tool, that it is unlikely that the problems of improvement planning would be solved by replacing one compliance exercise with another; Jerry taking on a process for strategy development that I had floated when he didn’t have to do that; Kerry saying to me that if we want people to think differently then we have to give them ways to do that.

And there are two other people who were indispensable to me in supporting the thinking that eventually led to The Strategy Playbook.  First is Sarah Birkeland, whose sharp and powerful skills in developmental evaluation made me think completely differently about strategy in the first place—I wrote about that in the Kappan article. It was a life-changing experience. And the other is Fran Rabinowitz. When she was superintendent in Bridgeport, I had the opportunity to talk to her about strategic planning and, in my typical tactless fashion (which I confessed to in CL #130) I told her what I thought of template-driven strategic planning, and she said that that’s the way she’d always done it, and I thought to myself, there you go again, Isobel, just because you think it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s true, and it’s not smart to offend superintendents. But Fran was not offended. She totally got what I was trying to do, and brought me back to talk to her cabinet, and has been nothing but supportive ever since. I am so grateful to them, and to everyone else who has been interested, engaged, and encouraging over the last few years.

I think the book has some really useful things to say about the process of creating strategy without getting caught up in the familiar “it’s 70 pages so it must be good!” traps. So, dear readers, I could use your help:

  1. Please buy the book. And if you’re not an educator, gift it to someone who would like it. Currently it is cheapest on the publisher’s page, but it is also available on Amazon  (including on Kindle!) and Bookshop.org.
  2. If you like the book, write a review on Amazon. Apparently, this really matters for boosting sales. If only half the people who receive The Coaching Letter wrote a review, it would be the most reviewed book on the educational administration bestseller list! To thank you for doing this, I am happy to send you a signed bookplate for your copy of the book–just let me know!
  3. If you or someone you know teaches a course in educational leadership, please encourage them to request an inspection copy.
  4. Spread the word about the book, by talking about it, by posting about it on LinkedIn or taking a picture of yourself reading it on Twitter. (It feels very, very strange to be asking people to do this.)
  5. Host a book group! Since everything is online these days, either Jennie or I would be happy to drop in on your Zoom conversation.

The book may be new but the Center has been taking a deliberate approach to improvement planning for a long time, and we are hosting a webinar to explain what we do on January 27 and February 3 for small district teams, including the superintendent. Registration includes a copy of the book for each participant, and two hours of coaching for the team from the Center. Click here for the flyer. Click here to register.

As I hope you would expect from us, it’s all about getting educators to think together about what it would actually take to get from where their school or district is now to where they want it to be. Some of the lines I wrote that did not make it into the marketing email that you should have received already: “Not your grandmother’s strategic plan!”; “how to make strategic planning a way of life (like taking a shower) rather than a once-in-a-lifetime event (like going to see Hamilton)”; “And we kill a few sacred cows along the way!” Apart from demonstrating why I’m not in charge of marketing, what I’m trying to do is get across that we don’t care much about what your plan looks like, but we care a great deal about communities of educators agreeing on what is important for ALL students, the work needed to achieve that, and how to get it done.

Reach out if you have any questions, or if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
860-576-9410
@IsobelTX
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2020-12-18T09:21:58-05:00