Friday, February 7, 2014

When SMART Goals become Dumb

Our schools have embraced SMART Goals (Conzemius and O’Neal, 2002) as a vehicle for allowing focused conversations around school growth in the area of curriculum, instruction and learning.

SMART Goals as a definition (and an acronym) are:
Specific: focus on specific learning needs of students
Measurable: can progress be monitored and adjustments can me be made along the way
Attainable: Goals are realistic and team members are given time and resources
Results Orientated: outcomes are observable specific
Time Bound: all done within a time frame
With this in mind I would like to throw out some personal questions and concerns about SMART Goals as I have come to see them in action.

To be clear, I'm not against goal setting.  After all, if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.

Having strategic goals, based on evidenced need, that can be monitored, is important for any school and teacher.

However, when it comes to SMART Goals in schools, I wonder if we, at times, miss the mark.

Process over results

Recently I watched a video entitled "What Drives Winning?"  The speaker, Brett Ledbetter, shares his insights on what some of the most successful coaches in college and professional basketball say about winning and goal setting.

The most telling message from all these successful and respected coaches is that they don't set goals based on results - instead they focus on "process and character".

For example, Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics is quoted as saying:
I don't even talk about goals.  As a team we never talk about it.  The only thing we talk about is process.
You can watch the video here - it is worth your 6 minutes:

Most of the SMART goals that I have encountered usually reference student achievement results based on some sort of standardized test.  One of my discomforts is that an over reliance on test results can drive pedagogy - usually at the expense of empowered, personalized learning for students.  Teach to the test anyone?

To be clear - I am not against standards nor am I against students demonstrating success in their learning through standards. As a society we need to be sure that student learning and understanding is measured against accepted and agreed upon standards.

However shouldn't the fact that we want students to learn and improve be the default position for every educator in the world?  Do we need SMART Goals to remind us that we want students to improve?

I would surmise that the basketball coaches interviewed in the video take "winning" as the default.  Coaches and players want to win.  That is a given.

Teachers want to students to learn and be successful in their learning.  Students are naturally born to learn and want to be successful in their learning.  That is a given.

What isn't a given is the process of empowering students (and teachers) in their learning.  Perhaps SMART Goals should seek to strike a better balance between pedagogy and student results.

Am I making sense?

School Wide Fake

As a high school principal I have always felt that it would be extremely difficult to have one or two school wide SMART Goals that would be valued and meaningful for an entire school community.

Instead, we developed school wide priorities, based on legitimate evidence - that specific departments and teachers could plug into - in a way that was most meaningful for them and their students.

Take for example......Literacy.  I would suspect that most schools, at one point or another, have had some sort of literacy related goal.

Rather than have one very specific SMART goal for our school, we named Literacy, across all curricular areas as an important priority.

As an offshoot of that school wide priority, different departments and teachers were empowered to make some important decisions as to how that literacy goal could have the most impact for individual students.

Science teachers, as an example, spent a lot of time working with students on how to unpack vocabulary rich scientific text.  Some Humanities teachers discovered that they needed to spend  time assisting students with the skill of summarizing text.

Over time we identified similar priorities related to Digital Citizenship, Assessment and Grading Practices and Technology Integration (to name a few).

It was important that our school wide priorities allowed for teachers to be nimble and respond to the learning needs of each student in any given class or course.

We measure that which is easy

Sometimes I worry that an over-reliance and simplistic view of measurement causes us to measure that which is easy.

In a previous post I ask: What are we measuring in education?

Like Dean Shareski writes in this post: "I'm not anti-measurement.  I'm anti-simple"

As usual, I'm figuring things out.  Any feedback is welcome....


  1. Enjoyed your post. Have a look at HBR blogpost Try Not Setting Goals in 2013...Best @bombayscot

  2. Hey Pal,

    This is a great post. The notion that SMART goals make us better as a school at driving improvement suggests that data -- which we've never been good at collecting, especially for meaningful outcomes -- matters most.

    That's never true simply because the data we are collecting stinks.

    Thanks for the reminder,

  3. I like the idea of "What is your school priority?" That should be what our annual school plan should be about, upcoming school priorities - instead of goals. Yes literacy is a major priority in most schools, but some of the Inner City "priorities" might be basic needs, or improving attendance. Then the question moves to the "how". The data we collect is different at every school; therefore never consistent and hard to measure on a yearly basis.

  4. Process> product. It is from our failures that we learn to succeed. Michael Jordan and Thomas Edison understood this...

    "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." ~ M.J.

    "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."~ T.E.

    This is why, in my creative writing class, students sign an oath. It includes:

    "It’s a requirement to produce a lot of bad writing. From bad writing, seeds of good writing will eventually grow. Give yourself permission to write lousy first drafts. When the poet William Stafford was asked how he was able to write a poem every day, he responded, “I lower my standards.”

    The ideal writer’s temperament includes the ability to tolerate ambiguity, handle intensity, wrestle with self-doubt, take risks, and accurately assess criticism. Writers tend to be sensitive people, and yet to write, need to be tough. Because, one thing that successful writers share is their ability to tolerate defeat and soldier on.


    The Writer’s Oath

    I promise solemnly:
    1. To allow myself imperfection
    2. To write as often and as much as I can
    3. To respect my writing self
    4. To nurture the writing of others

    I, ____________________, accept these responsibilities and shall honor them always."

    1. Thanks for sharing your reflection Allison. Congratulations on creating a great climate in your writing class