Monday / June 17

Is Your Strategic Planning Focused on Outcomes… or Just a Direction?

There are “Many Roads to Rome”—but You Need an Address and a GPS to Get There

Dear Colleagues,

As the saying goes, “There are many roads to Rome.” And that is true.

But after traveling in Italy this summer, I can assure you that you do not want to go to Rome. You want to go to specific places in Rome.

To expand this metaphor: if you are traveling to Rome from, let’s say, Florence, you want to travel South/Southwest. However, that is only a direction that will leave you (hopefully) somewhere in Rome—or, if you are unlucky, just on the outskirts of the city.

In contrast, if you are traveling to Rome—instead of a global direction, you really want to go to a destination, a specific place, in Rome. For that, you need an address and probably (if you know Rome’s topography and lay-out) a GPS.

So… what does this have to do with education?

Too often, when doing strategic planning, schools and districts end up with global goals that only reflect a set of directions. The best case scenario here is that they end up going in the “right direction,” but they never reach their student-specific destinations. Another typical result is that their successful students maintain or extend their success, but their needy or unsuccessful students stagnate and remain the same.

In contrast, what schools and districts need to do is to identify their specific, desired destinations—that is, the objective and measurable academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes that they want for all students from preschool through high school. These destinations should reflect the content, skills, processes, and subject-specific and trans-disciplinary applications that students need to learn and master at every grade level.

If “outcomes-based” strategic planning is used in place of “standards-based” strategic planning, schools and districts will be able to set their strategic “GPSs” to the path of least resistance. The clear result is that they will then have a much better chance of meeting their goals and attaining their outcomes.

As they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Using a Top-Down “Standards-Based” versus a Bottom-Up “Outcomes-Based” Approach to Strategic Planning

Earlier this past week, I was on a conference call with some district-level colleagues discussing the emerging strategic planning directions in their large urban/suburban county school district. Together, we discussed their superintendent’s interest in developing social, emotional, and behavioral standards for their students. Critically, we could have just as easily been discussing the district’s academic standards in literacy, math, and/or science.

My colleagues shared that their superintendent wanted to develop district-wide standards to guide the implementation of a whole-district, multi-tiered approach. My assumption was that these social, emotional, and behavioral standards would be connected to the district’s academic standards, creating vehicles toward the county’s strategic commitment to increase high school graduation and all students’ “college and career” readiness.

After the first minutes of the call, my first response was to ask my colleagues:

“What social, emotional, or behavioral competencies and skills do your students need—from preschool to high school—in order to facilitate graduation and help them to be college and career ready?”

My second question was:

“Wouldn’t you be better off identifying the specific outcomes that you want, and then generating your standards based on and aligned to these outcomes?”

As alluded to earlier, while most school districts employ a top-down “standards-based” approach to strategic planning, my work in the field has demonstrated that a bottom-up “outcomes-based” approach works better—relative to actually achieving the desired student-based outcomes. This is true whether we are talking about academic or social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

Consider the following: When the national Common Core State Standards (CCSS) website first went on-line, there was a prominent statement on its Home Page.

The statement basically said:

“These are just standards. Individual school districts will need to (a) operationalize these standards, (b) drill them down to academic scope and sequence progressions, (c) identify specific and measurable outcomes, (d) ensure that they are taught effectively using sound curricular materials and differentiated instruction, and (e) assess them formatively and summatively with reliable and valid measures.”

Unfortunately, many districts, schools, and teachers have not done this.

Instead, they are using the CCSS as their curricular, instruction, assessment, and evaluation templates. Moreover, they are compounding this problem as teachers in the same school at the same grade level are creating their own different CCSS lessons, teaching them “their own way,” and evaluating their outcomes using vastly different approaches.

This inconsistency ultimately undercuts instructional fidelity and accountability, and we do not get the collective student outcomes that we want.

Critically, the same thing has happened in states that have social, emotional, and/or behavioral standards—largely because specific outcomes have not been described and defined. This has been left to the districts, schools, and staff—resulting in a standards-based mess.

My point again is:

If districts, schools, and teachers need to eventually identify students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes, why would we not START by:

  • Identifying the outcomes first;
  • Then writing the standards to fit the outcomes;
  • Then generating the additional standards that might have been missed; and
  • Finally, “looping” back down to finalize the specific outcomes?

Examples of Academic and Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes

From an academic perspective, a bottom-up outcomes-based approach would focus on, for example:

  • The specific content, skills, processes, and subject-specific and trans-disciplinary applications that students need to learn and master—from preschool through high school—in identified academic areas (e.g., literacy, math, oral and written expression, science and civics, the arts and humanities).

To accomplish this, an integrated scientific, developmental, and pedagogical perspective is needed.  For example:

  • The current research and practice in literacy, identifies five functional, interdependent skill areas—phonemic awareness, phonetic decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  • Each of these areas needs to be operationalized—for example, what types of comprehension skills and questions do we want students to learn, master, and apply (in different types of texts) at the preschool/kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school levels?
  • Then, each of these areas needs to be developmentally validated—for example, at what age and/or development range or levels can students learn different types of comprehension questions?
  • Then, instructional progressions need to be developed where prerequisite knowledge and skills are identified, differentiated instruction templates are developed, formative and summative evaluation indicators and criteria are detailed, and available accommodations and modifications are embedded.

Critically, and consistent with this discussion’s theme, the guiding focus is on what we want students to be able to independently demonstrate.

For example, integrating science, literacy, mathematics, history, and ethics, we may want high school students to be able to (a) read and understand the purpose and steps of a chemistry experiment on pollutants in the atmosphere; (b) predict and prepare for the different phases or events that will occur during that experiment; (c) anticipate, respond to, and measure the outcomes of the different phases of the experiment; (d) generalize the results to a theory or set of universal principles; (e) apply these principles to one or more past historical events; and (f) frame the principles into an ethical dilemma contrasting the present benefits of an company that produces an important product, but that nonetheless releases small amounts of pollutants into the air, versus a boycott that might put that company out of business but benefit future generations.

While my example is complex (isn’t life?), the identification of the different science, literacy, mathematical, and ethical outcomes (and their prerequisites and progressions) is not. This is not rocket science. In fact, many schools, districts, states, and national professional associations have already done this work.

From a social, emotional, and behavioral perspective, a bottom-up outcomes-based approach would focus on competencies and skills that I have discussed in previous Blogs. That is, among the competencies that students—from preschool through high school—need to develop are the following:

  • Social Competencies
    • Listening, Engagement, and Response Skills
    • Communication and Collaboration Skills
    • Social Problem-Solving and Group Process Skills
    • Conflict Prevention and Resolution Skills
  • Emotional Competencies
    • Emotional Self-Awareness, Control, and Coping Skills
    • Awareness and Understanding of Others’ Emotions and Emotional Behavior
    • Positive Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, and Self-Statement Skills
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Competencies
    • Self-Scripting, Self-Monitoring, Self-Evaluation, Self-Correction, and Self-Reinforcement Skills
    • Social, Interactional, and Interpersonal Skills
    • Classroom and Building Routine Skills
    • Instructional and Academic Supporting Skills

Drilling these competencies down to a more functional level, below are twelve social, emotional, and behavioral skill clusters that all students also should learn and master progressively and before they graduate from high school:

  • Listening, Following Directions, Staying On-Task
  • Accurately interpreting Non-Verbal Cues and Voice Inflection
  • Being Positive, Motivated, and Persistent
  • Communicating Clearly, Constructively, and Courteously
  • Knowing how to Discuss, Interrupt, Debate, Agree, Compromise, and Disagree
  • Cooperating with and Accepting Others’ Opinions
  • Respecting Others, Being a Team Player, Taking on Different Group Roles
  • Knowing how to Ask for Help, and Accept Frustration or Consequences
  • Knowing how to Accept Failure, Losing, and Being Wrong
  • Showing Confidence, Dealing with Peer Pressure, Standing up for Self/Others
  • Controlling and Expressing Emotions, Responding to Others’ Emotions
  • Demonstrating Goal-oriented Planning and Time Management

Once again, these skills need to be taught in a developmentally-sound way, using effective differentiated instruction, and sound, field-tested curricular and pedagogical approaches. Moreover, once learned, we know that these skills will positively affect students’ academic performance, teachers’ classroom management, and schools’ climate and outcomes.

And so, Back to Strategic Planning

PLEASE hear me clearly: I am not saying that we do not need standards. I am simply questioning the directionality of how we generate standards while recommending an approach that will result in better outcomes.

In summary, when districts and schools begin their strategic planning process from a bottom-up outcomes-based perspective, they will identify the multi-tiered curricular, instructional, assessment, and evaluation outcomes that students need to demonstrate from preschool through high school.  But in addition, this bottom-up approach will more directly and immediately connect the professional development and training, coaching and supervision, resource and technology, and services and supports needed so that the student-focused outcomes can be attained for all students.

Critically, we have pretty much proven that the top-down standards-based approach does not work. For example, the Institute of Education Sciences released two new reports this past week describing surveys of Race-to-the-Top (RTT) versus non-RTT states, and School Improvement Grant (SIG) schools—analyzing their implementation of the policies and practices promoted by the U.S. Department of Education as a condition of receiving the billions of tax dollars awarded.

While it is important to read the specifics in these (and earlier) RTT/SIG evaluation reports, the “bottom line” is that:

  • The states and schools that received grant money implemented more of the recommended policies and practices than unfunded states and schools—but they did not implemented all or even most of the policies and practices;
  • Most of the practices were incredibly global in nature (see below)—reinforcing the earlier point about vague strategic directions versus laser-focused student outcome destinations; and
  • The results from the RTT states and SIG schools thus far are unimpressive—with, for the SIG program, a third of the schools showing worse student achievement results over time, and two-thirds of the schools showing just marginal levels of academic improvement.

And, once again, what are some of global, top-down RTT and SIG practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Education? To:

  • Use data to evaluate instructional programs
  • Use data to inform and differentiate instruction
  • Use benchmark or interim assessments at least annually
  • Implement strategies to ensure that ELL learners master academic content
  • Require student achievement growth as a component of teacher evaluations
  • Provide multiple-session professional development events
  • Replace the principal
  • Use financial incentives to recruit and retain effective principals
  • Change parent or community engagement strategies
  • Change discipline policies


If we are really committed to better, high, and achievable outcomes for all students, we need to rethink our strategic planning processes and how we identify our needed and desired goals and outcomes. To a large degree over the past decade or more, we keep “doing the same things” somehow expecting “different results.”

But we are not getting the different results.

The results we are getting include frustrated students, parents, staff, and schools.

Moreover, we keep looking at new “Band-Aids” —charter and magnet schools, eliminating teacher tenure, creating “smaller” schools—when we need to focus, once again, on student outcomes and the services, supports, strategies, and programs needed to get to the outcomes. [Note that there are lots of charter schools, work-at-will staffs, and small schools that do not produce positive student outcomes—because these are not causal factors that directly affect student achievement.]

For those of us who did not grow up with GPSs (never mind MapQuest), we continue to be amazed by this phenomenal technological innovation.  For those students who are growing up in schools that are not working, we need to apply the strategic approaches and innovations that DO work, and reset our GPSs.

It is time to get to our destination—instead of just wandering in the “right” direction.

I hope that you will reflect on this message’s information and thoughts. Know that I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country. I look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments. Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.



Dr. Howie Knoff

Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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