Think about this before you set your next goal

The process of goal-setting has become so axiomatic in schools that we rarely take a step back to examine it. Most effective leaders understand that goal-setting is an integral part of initiative implementation, but what must leaders keep in mind when setting goals in order to ensure successful long-term implementation?

First, we have to acknowledge that goal-setting is a psychological activity with little real-world correlation. In other words–and this is going to sound strange, but go with me for a moment–goal-setting is technically meaningless. Whether you set a goal for 100% of students to achieve proficiency in math or 75% of students to achieve proficiency in math has no direct bearing on whether your students learn math better. Students usually won’t even know what your goal is, or if they do (as some schools have tried) it will rarely be salient or meaningful to them. However, there is a clear, though hard to understand, indirect effect.

The goal you set can have a tremendously positive or negative effect on those implementing the initiative, which is why it’s critical to get feedback on the goal from those involved. Some will advocate the setting of “big, hairy, audacious goals”:

Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is a strategic business statement similar to a vision statement which is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible. (Wikipedia)

Those who advocate for BHAGs often claim that setting a goal thought to be previously unrealistic may redefine what’s thought to be possible. In a school with persistent behavioral or safety issues, a leader may set a BHAG of reducing suspensions by 50%. If life were a movie, we would see initial shock and hesitation on the part of the staff, but gradually we would see teachers get inspired (probably in a montage) by the leader’s courage in setting the BHAG, and eventually the BHAG becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as everyone rallies together to accomplish it.

But life is not a movie, and despite the tantalizing psychological appeal of the BHAG, it should be set with caution. Remember No Child Left Behind’s audacious goal of having 100% of schools proficient by 2014? How’s that going? Audacious goals may impress outsiders and initially draw attention to a leader’s boldness, but ultimately if they are unrealistic they risk undermining the initiative altogether. (That’s why it’s critical to pay attention to the last part of that Wikipedia definition–“likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.”)

So we’ve established the danger of setting unrealistic goals–but what about the other side? Is there a drawback to setting goals that aren’t audacious enough? That depends. Let’s look back at the school with persistent behavior and safety issues.

Let’s say School X invoked 150 suspensions in the 2016-17 school year. The school plans to implement a restorative discipline program that includes peer mediation, restorative circles, hiring additional guidance counselors, and an advisory program. School X decides that it will use the number of suspensions as a primary metric (a somewhat questionable metric, as I’ve explored previously, but let’s go with it). What goal should the school set for the number of suspensions? Let’s lay out some scenarios:

  1. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 75%. This would be a wildly unrealistic goal. Few within the organization would see this goal as realistic; many might accuse the leader of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the problem (after all, you don’t get to 150 suspensions unless there are serious underlying issues). The goal is not achieved and the leader’s credibility is severely undermined.
  2. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 50%. Most see this goal as unrealistic; some are willing to try and some truly believe it is possible. Through a series of great leadership moves, the goal is achieved. The leader is a hero and the subject of more than a few articles in Chalkbeat. The leader earns so much leadership capital from the staff that anything seems possible.
  3. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 50%. Most see this goal as unrealistic; some are willing to try and some truly believe it is possible. However, persistent underlying problems prove harder than thought to fix. The goal is not achieved and the leader’s credibility is undermined. What happens next? If the goal was not achieved, there will be demands to change course. But is that the right move? The initiative might have been making significant progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and initiatives rarely are fully successful after one year. The right move may be to stay the course and build on small successes. Unfortunately, because not achieving one’s goal is often synonymous with failure (in this case, unfairly so), the leader will be forced to change something.
  4. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 12%. Nearly everyone sees this goal as realistic. Outsiders may clamor that this goal is not bold enough or that the resources expended necessitate a more audacious goal. What the leader does now depends on how much capital she has accrued. If she can weather the initial storm, she can proceed with the 12% goal. At the midyear mark, she may find that the school is well on its way to achieving or surpassing the goal; at that point, she can choose to “up” or maintain the goal. The more modest goal does not inhibit the work of the rockstars on the staff, but may motivate those who are hesitant. At the end of the year, the goal is achieved; the leader has now accrued more capital and flexibility with which to work in year two of the initiative.
  5. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 12%. The goal, while viewed as realistic by all, is not met. This may be catastrophic for the leader because the goal was originally seen as too modest and yet still wasn’t achieved.

Which of these scenarios is the right one to choose? Few would pick the goal of 75%; however, I imagine many might waver on 50% vs. 12%. I could see some claiming that by setting less-than-ultra-audacious goals, we are shortchanging our kids. But I don’t believe this is the case. I understand this is not the heroic, cinematic position to take, but leaders should be more concerned with long-term gains than flashy wins. Setting realistic goals allows you to build on successes and mitigates fear. Teachers’ work is already psychologically perilous and generally full of anxiety; adding worry and anxiety with unrealistic goals simply does not increase effectiveness. We want the reaction of staff to a goal to be generally along the lines of “Okay, I think we can do that” (not, “oh, that’s easy” and not “are you kidding me?”).

Businesses may need to “light a fire” with big, hairy, audacious goals. For most teachers, the fire is already blazing. We should use goals to gauge our progress and support further investment, not as psychological manipulation (teachers don’t need it).



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