Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Why at this juncture DC is screwed

From "Progress, Problems After D.C. Schools Takeover" in the Washington Post:

The District's struggling public school system has made significant progress during two years of mayoral control, but lack of planning and transparency has hindered some reforms, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported Thursday. ...

The report also describes a lack of clear strategic planning with specific targets that can be communicated to the community stakeholders.

Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, said the Fenty administration was more interested in results than detailed blueprints. "Our emphasis has been on accountability and results, and less on plans which the city was quite successful in doing previously," he said.

GAO report: District of Columbia Public Schools: Implementation and Sustainability of Reform Efforts Could Benefit From Enhanced Planning

The basic "plan" for the "reform" of the DC public school system is to fire old teachers and hire new teachers.

Sure there are "bad" teachers. But as importantly, the system hasn't been focused on building quality management and support and training and development systems to support students, teaching, teachers, principals, schools, and families.

Over the years--my joke is that the reason that the schools are probably the worst performing local municipal institution is because home rule started first in the public school system--local leadership had become more concerned with the school system being an opportunity for patronage that concerns about achieving outcomes in the classrooms, for students, ceased being a priority.

I am the first to say that planning as a field has flaws. If you are asking the wrong questions and/or avoiding the most fundamental, substantive, and important issues, and planning around the answers to wrong questions, then your plan isn't going to be any good.

I know it's a cliche, but a "Failure to Plan is a Plan for Failure." From the article:

There are two adages I think of regarding planning and launching a business intelligence project. They are: "Failure to plan is a plan for failure" and "Each hour spent planning is worth two hours saved during implementation." ... Here’s a checklist for doing the job right:

  • Define the project.
  • Identify the users.
  • Develop a formal project plan.
  • Assemble the project team.
  • Assess all information and technical needs.
  • Select the software.
  • Configure the business intelligence application.
  • Deploy a support strategy.
  • Train all users.
The article is focused on software development, so this checklist needs modification for accurate application to other stettings. (And there are plenty of examples of failed software implementations). For example, the school's users include children, teachers, principals, support personnel, parents, community members, elected officials, etc. But in any case, a failure to plan will yield failure. So will a failure to connect to all the stakeholder groups that must be involved in order to achieve success.

It's true that planning can be so over detailed as to be problematic. But not planning at all--more importantly, not asking the right questions about purpose and outcomes and how to achieve the preferred outcomes and how to build the systems, processes, and structures to yield the outcomes without over-reliance on exemplary individuals--you can be certain that your efforts will fail.

The problem is that a focus on immediate results--call it accountability if you want, but it isn't really--without asking significant questions about what you are supposed to achieve, and what you are trying to achieve, and identifying gaps between what you are doing and what you are supposed to be doing means you're working hard but you sure as hell aren't working smart.

I jokingly call my work style "minimalist." I try to work smart, not hard, and work to apply theory and best practices to my projects to increase the likelihood of success from the outset, rather than in a panic in response to evident problems (that could have been predicted).

As Bismarck said:

"Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others."

When you don't have that experience, and the people running DC's school "reform" efforts do not, plans are a necessary first step.

The same attitude about the irrelevance of planning to improving the schools permeates the executive branch of the DC Government, hence the headline of this entry.

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