Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1995 Issue »

    The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and Strategic Planning in Education

    Edward J. Miech
    The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning

    by Henry Mintzberg.

    New York: Free Press, 1994. 416 pp. $29.95.

    Strategic Planning in Education: Rethinking, Restructuring, Revitalizing

    by Roger Kaufman and Jerry Herman.

    Lancaster, PA: Technomic, 1991. 315 pp. $39.00.

    What if educational reformers imported a management tool from the business world to improve schools, and subsequent research indicated that the same tool had never worked particularly well in business in the first place? This provocative question arises after reading Henry Mintzberg's new book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. While Mintzberg's book focuses primarily on strategic planning in business organizations, it represents an important resource for educators who encounter the education version of strategic planning and assume that this management innovation rests on a solid foundation in the private sector. If strategic planning's effectiveness in business turns out to be a myth, educators might well wonder about its prospects as a management tool for school improvement.

    A professor of management at McGill University, Mintzberg has published four books and a score of articles on organization and management. In this latest book, he reviews the evidence on the effectiveness of strategic planning in business from surveys, anecdotes, and case studies, and finds that "something has indeed gone wrong" (p. 135). He challenges the premise that strategic planning ever improved the financial performance of business firms, leading to his major thesis that strategic planning is fundamentally flawed because it does nothing to explain how to formulate good organizational strategy. According to Mintzberg,

    This whole planning exercise . . . was programmed in great detail: the delineation of steps, the application of checklists and techniques to each of these, the scheduling of this whole thing, everything nicely accounted for. Except for one minor detail: strategy formulation itself. Nowhere was anyone told how to create strategy. How to collect information, yes. How to evaluate strategy, yes. How to implement it, for sure. But not how to create it in the first place. (p. 66)

    And what is strategic planning? Originating in the business community in the 1960s, strategic planning attempts to combine short-term and long-term planning. Organizations conducting strategic planning typically commit themselves to a formal process in which a group of "planners" articulates a mission statement, sets goals and objectives, audits the organization for internal strengths and weaknesses, assesses the external environment for opportunities and threats, evaluates strategic options, and then selects and operationalizes an organizational strategy. The basic aim of strategic planning is to link daily organizational decisions with a vision of where the organization wants to be at some point in the future, usually five years hence.

    Strategic planning emerged in public education as a management tool in the mid-1980s. The term appeared in educational publications for the first time around 1984, and by 1987 an estimated five hundred school districts around the country were using some type of strategic planning (Conley, 1992). Two professional organizations, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), promoted strategic planning in education through publishing and widely disseminating two strategic planning handbooks written by national consultants Shirley McCune (Strategic Planning for Educators, 1986) and Bill Cook (Strategic Planning for America's Schools, 1988). McCune and Cook proceeded to lead strategic planning workshops for educators around the country under the sponsorship of the two associations, with Cook graduating over four hundred "certified strategic planners" from his AASA-approved program. Educational Leadership, the professional organ of the ASCD, dedicated its April 1991 issue to strategic planning. Today, the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) lists over 340 titles written since 1989 under the subject of "strategic planning," which address strategic planning in a variety of educational settings, including schools, universities, and libraries.

    One comprehensive text on the subject published in the 1990s is Strategic Planning in Education: Rethinking, Restructuring, and Revitalizing by Roger Kaufman and Larry Herman. Strategic Planning in Education has sold around four thousand copies since its initial release, and its relative popularity as a textbook is not difficult to understand. Kaufman and Herman, professors at Florida State University and the University of Alabama, respectively, present a clear picture of the process of strategic planning from start to finish. This process includes selecting desired results, identifying a mission, assessing needs in order to formulate new purposes, developing and implementing action plans, and evaluating the success of the strategic plan. Strategic Planning in Education explains each step of the strategic planning process with lucid examples, and an extensive number of figures, tables, diagrams, matrices, and templates complement the text. Kaufman and Herman offer practical guidelines, concrete techniques, and pragmatic advice throughout their book, and their hands-on approach towards strategic planning is geared explicitly to an audience of educational practitioners. An appendix includes 32 pages of actual documents that the school district of Leon County, Florida, used when it undertook district-wide strategic planning in January 1990.

    In the midst of this detailed overview of strategic planning, however, something fundamental is missing — there is no evidence that strategic planning actually improves educational performance within schools. Kaufman and Herman write in their preface:

    "Strategic planning" is in danger of becoming just an educational fad. It is much too valuable an advance to suffer such a fate. Some educators have borrowed a page from the industrialists' book and embraced it — often without a clear idea of what it is, what it should deliver, and how it differs from other types of planning. (p. xiii)

    A safeguard against educational faddism, though, is to review proof of an intervention's effectiveness in various settings — in this case, empirical or anecdotal evidence of the success of strategic planning in schools. Yet this evidence does not appear in Strategic Planning in Education, and readers must take it on faith that strategic planning works as they learn how to proceed step-by-step through the elaborate process.

    Strategic Planning in Education is not alone in this regard. Despite the rapid proliferation of strategic planning during the last ten years, few works have evaluated its impact on the performance of schools and student learning. In fact, the only empirical study exploring the relationship between strategic planning and student performance in the school literature may be a survey of 127 public school districts in Kentucky in the late 1980s.

    In their 1989 study, Vicki Basham and Fred Lunenburg found an "inconsistent and weak" association between district participation in strategic planning and student achievement, as measured by standardized test scores in reading, language arts, and mathematics in grades 3, 5, 7, and 10. Basham and Lunenburg wrote in their review of prior research that "no other study shows a direct tie-in between strategic planning in school districts and school district performance on standardized achievement tests," and they can add their own work to the list. The Kentucky study, correlational by design, could only determine if districts that happened to use strategic planning also happened to have higher standardized test scores, and not if strategic planning caused higher test scores. Moreover, Basham and Lunenburg found insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that strategic planning and student achievement were even related. They did, however, discover a positive relationship between strategic planning and local property wealth. This finding suggests that any differences in standardized test scores in districts that use strategic planning may be explained by socioeconomic status, a factor long associated in the literature with student performance (1989, pp. 161–169).

    Given the apparent lack of evidence that strategic planning boosts performance in either education or business, strategic planning itself might be a candidate for earnest criticism. Indeed, Mintzberg critiques strategic planning as a doomed attempt to apply Frederick Winslow Taylor's principles of scientific management to the tasks of the administrative ranks by prescribing a strict, regimented procedure for planners to follow. While a routine for loading pig iron onto a railroad car may be efficiently standardized, Mintzberg argues, the act of creating strategy is an extremely complex process demanding sophisticated cognitive and social skills that researchers have only begun to understand; strategy-making certainly cannot be formally programmed by organizational theorists.

    Mintzberg painstakingly dissects what he calls the "fundamental fallacies of strategic planning." For example, while strategic planning attempts to predict or control the future, present forecasting techniques are extremely limited and notoriously inaccurate; while strategic planning requires quantitative data, such data are commonly too limited in scope, too aggregated, too unreliable, and too late to be useful in effective strategy formulation; while strategic planning frequently focuses exclusively on strategy formulation, the success for implementation rests upon people who had nothing to do with creating those plans. These basic flaws lead to what Mintzberg considers the "grand fallacy" of strategic planning: "Because analysis is not synthesis, strategic planning is not strategy formulation" (p. 321). In other words, strategic planning is a tool of formal analysis, when genuine strategy formulation requires creative synthesis to combine deliberate, pre-planned strategy with what Mintzberg calls "emergent strategy" — strategy that comes from the way a series of unanticipated and unplanned events converge over time into a recognizable pattern. The art of creating good strategy cannot be reduced into a formal set of procedures called strategic planning: "Ultimately, the term `strategic planning' has proved to be an oxymoron" (p. 321).

    While Mintzberg challenges the potential of strategic planning to improve the fiscal performance of businesses, he does not conclude in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning that strategic planning serves no purpose at all. Rather, his review of the strategic planning literature leads him to assert that strategic planning "does have a number of roles to play in organizations, even if these differ from the stated intentions of its proponents," with public relations prominent among these auxiliary roles (p. 134).

    Strategic planning can also play an important public relations role in education. For example, strategic planning in education can help improve school-community relations by involving parents and community members in the formal strategic planning process. In a 1993 content analysis of seventy-nine strategic plans collected from school districts around the country, David Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon, found that "community relations" was the most frequently cited objective (appearing in 41 of the 79 strategic plans) and concluded that

    strategic planning does seem to be a useful tool for communicating across traditional boundaries between schools and communities. The high recurrence of strategies that address partnerships, public relations, and securing financial resources indicates the importance of this political dimension of the planning process. (1993, p. 25)

    In fact, broad modifications in the strategic planning process by educators appear to have facilitated improved school-community relations. In emphasizing the "participatory aspects" of strategic planning and using it as a "public relations tool," educators have changed strategic planning into something quite unlike strategic planning in business, according to Conley:

    The descriptions of strategic planning in education are so different from its use in the private sector as to raise the issue of whether the educational model has diverged so far that it deserves some new name. (1992, p. 52)

    Whereas business often focused strategic planning around relatively detached groups of "experts" within the organization, educators engaging in strategic planning have apparently decided to emphasize the political dimensions of the process in order to increase the number of stakeholders in the school enterprise.

    This formulation of strategic planning, with its appeal to diverse interests and diffuse distribution of power, increases the likelihood of community involvement in schools, but it also creates problems with ensuring a coordinated focus and a suitable role for expert knowledge. As Conley states:

    Strategic planning attempts to walk a delicate line between interactive/political elements of planning that demand broad-based participation and agreement on general principles and goals, and rationalist elements that require adequate detail and measures to ensure plan implementation. The planning process, with its emphasis on global perspective and consensus decision making, tends to produce rather general statements of intent. . . . The broad goals and intentions appear to lose something in the translation into specific activities designed to transform educational practices, and the result is a series of distinct, often unconnected, educational improvement activities. (1993, p. 26)

    A remarkable sameness pervaded the seventy-nine strategic plans Conley reviewed from around the country, allowing him to create a composite mission statement:

    It is the mission of ________ School District to enable all students to become responsible citizens and lifelong learners in a changing global society. This will occur in an environment where diversity is valued and the potential of each student is developed to the fullest, with an emphasis on excellence in all endeavors. This can only occur as a result of a partnership between and among the school district, parents, and other community members and agencies. (1993, p. 12)

    Conley comments that "there is very little in mission statements to which reasonable people will take serious exception." A crucial question remains unswered, however: How do these general statements translate into changes in practice that improve educational performance?

    In sum, the importation of strategic planning into schools provides a cautionary tale for educators. While strategic planning may have a positive effect on community relations, it has not demonstrably resulted in significant financial gains in business or educational gains in schools. As Mintzberg states:

    More evidence will, no doubt, come providing elaboration if not insight. . . . At the very least, we have found that [strategic] planning is not "the one best way," that it certainly does not pay in general, and that at best, it may have some suitability in particular contexts, such as larger organizations, those in mass production, etc. (p. 97)

    Furthermore, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning indicates that strategic planning itself may be fundamentally flawed as a management tool in any field. While the strategic planning process can help groups of people evaluate and operationalize strategies, it does not address the key problem of how to create good strategy. Unless a formal process can capture the genius of strategy-making exemplified by educators such as Francis Parker, John Dewey, Deborah Meier, and Tony Alvarado, who have transformed schools and school districts, strategic planning in education may turn out to be little more than a placeholder for the next management tool from business.


    Basham, V., & Lunenburg, F. (1989). Strategic planning, student achievement and school district financial and demographic factors. Planning and Changing, 20(3), 158–171.

    Conley, D. (1992, April). Strategic planning in America's schools: An exploratory study. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

    Conley, D. (1993, April). Strategic planning in practice: An analysis of purposes, goals, and procedures. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta.

    Cook, B. (1988). Strategic planning for America's schools. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

    McCune, S. (1986). Strategic planning for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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    Fall 1995 Issue


    A Dialogue
    Culture, Language, and Race
    By Paulo Freire and Donaldo P. Macedo
    Navajo Youth and Anglo Racism
    Cultural Integrity and Resistance
    By Donna Deyhle
    Script, Counterscript, and Underlife in the Classroom
    James Brown versus Brown v. Board of Education
    By Kris Gutierrez, Betsy Rymes, and Joanne Larson
    Levels of Comparison in Educational Studies
    Different Insights from Different Literatures and the Value of Multilevel Analyses
    By Mark Bray and R. Murray Thomas

    Book Notes

    Other People's Children
    By Lisa Delpit

    National Issues on Education
    Edited by John F. Jennings.

    U.S. Educational Policy Interest Groups
    By Gregory S. Butler and James D. Slack.

    Education at a Glance
    By the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

    School Choice
    By Peter W. Cookson Jr.

    Edited by Lance W. Roberts and Rodney A. Clifton

    Framing Questions, Constructing Answers
    By Noel F. McGinn and Allison M. Borden

    Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature

    Changing the Subject
    Edited by Sue Davies, Cathy Lubelska, and Jocey Quinn.

    Rewriting Literacy
    Edited by Candace Mitchell and Kathleen Weiler.

    The Return of the Political
    By Chantal Mouffe

    Black Popular Culture
    Edited by Gina Dent.

    Thirteen Questions
    Edited by Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg.

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.