As we dream big, it’s easy to get carried away and set goals that are too ambitious, too numerous, too confusing or too far from the classroom. Here are four tips on how to avoid these mistakes in your annual school or district goal setting process.
Every summer, principals and district leaders have an annual tradition of coming back early from vacation to plan for the year. With a fresh beachy glow, we sit down to outline all that we will accomplish this year.
I’ll be honest, I love this process. The clothes are comfortable, the Zoom backgrounds are exciting (where are you now?) and the mood is high. Anything is possible this year.
As we dream big, it’s easy to get carried away and set goals that are too ambitious, too numerous, too confusing or too far from the classroom.
Here are four tips on how to avoid these mistakes in your annual school or district goal setting process.
Hitting the right level of ambition in your goals is a balancing act. You want the goals to be ambitious enough to inspire the team. But if the goals are too ambitious, they can be demoralizing (we’ll never achieve that, so why try?).
My favorite approach to hitting that ‘just right’ level of ambition is borrowed from the Objective and Key Results (ORKs) framework, popular in many technology companies as a way to organize and motivate the hard-to-measure work of building software.
OKRs have two features that I find very relevant for schools.
First, the explicit expectation is to achieve 80% of your goals. If you achieve 100%, you did not set ambitious enough goals. If you achieved <80%, your goals were too ambitious.
I find that the explicit acknowledgement that we will come up short somewhere helps build trust with teachers. We can aim high, while still being realistic.
The other relevant aspect of OKRs is that you set both annual and quarterly goals at the school/district level. Every quarter, you check the annual goals to make sure they are still relevant and achievable. If something comes up, like, I don’t know, a global pandemic, you can revise the annual goals.
Translating the annual goals into quarterly objectives also helps ensure the goals are achievable by making the process of achieving the goal concrete. It shows what we’re going to do to achieve the goal in the first 6–8 weeks of school.
Another quick tip to improve achievability: use this sentence starter: “improve [target] from [X] to [Y]”. If you don’t know where you are starting from, it’s hard to know where you can go.
My rule of thumb is that you should be able to say all of your goals in one sentence, without taking a breath.
It’s always so tempting to just throw in another goal. Oh wait, SEL isn’t in here, let’s add a goal for that! And Reading! And Math! And there’s a new science test this year!
One thing to notice as you are setting goals: did you leave with the same number of goals as people in the room?
Every team or stakeholder should likely have their own goals, but those are different from the district / school-level goals.
Goals drive prioritization. It’s why, if you set a goal around early literacy, you may spend money on a phonics program instead of new algebra curriculum. If you have goals for every school / district functional lead, you haven’t actually prioritized.
Another trap is nesting goals. How many schools have you seen with goals that are essentially this:
That’s great, three goals!
But then, you ask how they are going to achieve their goals, and you get:
2. Be awesome at SEL / relationships
3. Be awesome at equity + inclusivity
“Get better at everything” is not a strategy. Setting nested goals is just another way of setting too many goals.
Over the last 20ish years, there has been a much-needed shift in focus in education from inputs to outcomes.
However, it’s easy to get yourself tied into knots about what’s an input, an output or an outcome.
Is launching a phonics-based early literacy program an input or an outcome? Is improving DIBELs scores the outcome or is that an input into future ELA test scores? Are future ELA test scores an outcome or is that an input into college and career readiness? Is college and career readiness and outcome or is that an input into living a fulfilling life?
Ultimately, whether we call something an input or an outcome is arbitrary.
A much more useful question is: do I have a strategy to achieve this goal, or do I want someone else to figure out how to achieve it?
Scenario 1: I have a strategy to achieve this goal
How should you set goals when you have a known strategy that you think will achieve the goal?
Test scores are a common choice of outcome. It’s critical to remember that test scores are very noisy.
Let’s say you set a goal for math scores to improve and you are using the research-based strategy of launching a Tier 1 curriculum. It can look like you didn’t achieve your goal if, at the end of the year, test scores went down. But test scores go down for lots of reasons! They might have gone down even more if you had chosen a different strategy.
If you are highly confident that your strategy will work, for example, because it is research-based, then the goal should be effective implementation of the strategy.
An “achieve this strategy” goal helps motivate action toward successful implementation. It tells your team to apply their creativity to effective implementation.
If you kept the goal at the test score level, and a principal disagrees with the new curriculum as the best strategy, they should have the freedom to make that choice! In practice, principals do have a lot of autonomy on curriculum even if, in theory, it’s a district-level choice.
When you set a goal of strong implementation of a strategy, you are saying: this year will be successful if we implement this strategy effectively. I’ve gotten pushback on this type of goal as being an “input”. But, most often, strategy implementation goals are exactly the right approach.
Scenario 2: There’s no single strategy to achieve my goal
Let’s say that you want to improve student-teacher relationships.
I don’t know of a single, researched based strategy to do this. It takes creativity from each individual teacher about what is going to resonate with each individual student. You can’t force that at the district level.
An outcome goal is most appropriate in cases like this, where you know the outcome you want to improve, but at least one of the following is true:
In this case, I would set the goal as some kind of student survey measure, and message to my entire team: it’s your job to figure out how to achieve this goal.
The last common mistake that I see is setting goals that don’t actually say anything about what should be happening between teachers, students and content.
Introducing a new test is a common area where I see goals that don’t impact students. “We’re going to take the NWEA MAP test!” Great!, I’m so glad that you will have access to this information — but what are you going to do with it?
What actions should teachers be taking? Make the teacher action the goal, not the test.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is another area where I see poorly formed goals that don’t touch students.
DEI is not like student-teacher relationships. You can’t just say “we’re going to improve equity this year!” and your staff will figure out how to do it. If you don’t have a strategy for how you are going to improve a DEI indicator, don’t set the indicator as a goal.
But DEI is also not like early literacy, where there is a research-based strategy that we can pull off the shelf and be confident that our results will improve.
Neither strategy nor outcome goals fit well for DEI.
Without a clear framework, I often see schools just adding up the number of equity-related activities they are doing, and setting that as the goal. Complete 2 equity PDs per semester.
Instead, good DEI goals start with a diagnosis of what it will take to improve equity in your organization.
What is the biggest problem you can do the most about? For example, if you have diagnosed disproportionate literacy achievement between Black and White students as a critical equity gap, then an early literacy program might be your equity goal.
(It’s OK if your DEI goal doesn’t say “equity” in its name).
Part of the problem in setting DEI goals is that too few people know what anti-racist teaching looks like, beyond representation in the curriculum. They don’t know where they are going, so they can’t set goals to know when they are there.
I’ll give you a hint: anti-racist teaching looks great. Picture the best teacher you’ve ever seen. That teacher does the most to close equity gaps. Anti-racist teaching looks like a diverse team of exceptional teachers.
At EdLight, we help schools uphold student dignity by valorizing their work. We help craft teachers into exceptional educators by building fluency in diagnosing and responding to student thinking. We’re always learning. We’d love to learn more about your community and share our success.