Improving district-level goal-setting with ‘SMART Goals,’ part I

The value of district-level goal setting
One of the most important functions of a school board is to collaborate with school district administration in defining and ratifying short-term and long-term goals for student mastery and performance outcomes. Properly defined and articulated, a goal set at the district level establishes a clear target for which the rest of the district can aim. While parallax perspectives may exist on how to reach that target, a clear and common view of a goal’s intent must be communicated and embraced by all.

If we compare all the schools within a district to a fleet of ships, and the students and personnel within those schools are that fleet’s passengers and crews, then a goal ratified at the district-level would serve as that fleet’s common starting point, destination, and course heading. Extending this metaphor slightly further, it would be the school board that serves as the fleet’s collective navigator, monitoring its compass (community feedback, district-wide performance results and other metrics) to ensure the collective stays on course towards its destination. However, above all, it is that initial process of goal-setting (by that board) that sets the whole fleet in motion, headed in the right direction in the first place.

Where well-intentioned, district-level goals often go astray
While the value of high-level goals is clear, the process of writing clear goals that are easily interpreted and achieved at all levels within a large, complex organization such as a school district often requires more finesse that many might imagine. Even a goal unanimously agreed upon by an entire board of trustees may get clouded and misinterpreted as it eventually cascades down through the layers of the district. This problem often occurs when board meeting participants do not use the same degree of specificity to explain the agreed-upon goals. For instance, in a monthly board meeting trustees may vigorously argue in support of a goal to raise the level of rigor within junior-level language arts to combat an epidemic of graduates ill-prepared for college English courses. In doing so, they cite various recently reported scores, observed obstacles and anecdotal examples of possible new curricula to utilize as potential solutions. Yet even after agreeing unanimously upon that goal, what ultimately gets recorded in the minutes is often very broad, non-specific language such as “improve high school language arts curricula.”

Below are two examples of actual district level goals taken from publicly available documentation. Both of the associated school districts have historically struggled with low student outcomes.

Example 1 – District Board Meeting Agenda Item

GOAL: Increase the number of students taking AP courses and exams

Example 2 – District Strategic Plan Goal

GOAL: Improve achievement for all students through an articulated and challenging curriculum that is aligned with standards and meets the needs of individual students

Certainly, the goals in these two examples do have a well-crafted, optimistic potential. And no doubt, they bring to mind lovely visions of idealistic outcomes for students. However, whosoever’s job it is to put either of these goals into action would have quickly taken notice of the vague wording and lack of any reference to time frame for potential achievement:

[From the first example]
By how much, exactly, should we strive to; “Increase the number of students taking AP courses?” Would just a single student be enough, or does the district have a specific number in mind?

[From the second example]
Improve achievement” to what degree… by what metric should we measure achievement? What is meant by an “articulated and challenging curriculum?” A myriad of different types of curricula could fit this definition. When school board members set goals, by what metric would we determine the curriculum “meets the needs of individual students?” To which “individual students” does this goal refer?

While these examples were no doubt written with the very best of intentions by prominent school board members and experienced academicians, their lack of specificity demonstrates just how difficult it can be to write clear and useful goals, particularly within the constraints of a board environment.

Some goals are SMARTer than others
A more effective way to write district-level goals that will be clear to maintain their integrity and ensure achievement is to write them as SMART goals.

SMART goals are nothing new, at least to many educators, as they are a well-established, research-based method of goal setting. However, given that many school board members often hail from occupations outside of academia, it’s often the case that some are unfamiliar with their use and/or format. Such board members may ask, “what are SMART goals, and what makes them so smart anyway?”

SMART goals embody the characteristics of the S-M-A-R-T acronym:
Actionable and Achievable
Relevant and Realistic

Specific: First and foremost, SMART goals differ from basic goals by acknowledging that the specificity with which one defines a goal has enormous impact upon it’s likelihood of being achieved. Lack of specificity is a prime pitfall of goal setting. SMART goals force specificity and analysis of exactly what is being targeted. For example, a vaguely-worded goal such as, “improve graduation rates” in SMART goal form should be transformed into “increase the number of graduating seniors at the districts’ three lowest performing high schools.”

Measurable: SMART goals must also be capable of being accurately measured. Hence, the previous wording could be further modified to “increase the number of graduating seniors at the districts’ three lowest performing high schools by at least 15 percent.” Likewise, the wording, “average student performance will elevate by one letter grade” would be more specific than simply “improve student outcomes.”

Actionable / Achievable: SMART goals need to also be actionable and achievable. The aforementioned goal to improve senior graduations by 15 percent should be amended with “by implementing agreed upon action measures to include reducing senior class sizes, expanding counseling opportunities and implementing a district-wide program for online academic tutoring service.”

Relevant / Realistic: SMART goals must also be relevant, so that their focus makes sense within the scope of the overall educational mission. They should also be realistically achievable. While a certain degree of optimism in a goal can help to encourage its accomplishment, too much can make a goal seem insurmountable.

Finally, SMART goals must be time-bound, having a designated time frame to be achieved. This enables progress toward the goal to be regularly evaluated and course corrections to be made as needed.

Making the effort to write five SMART district-level goals betters the chance of realizing student outcomes. This is because the process of writing SMART goals forces goal-setters to clarify ambiguities at the outset before they can escalate into problematic misunderstandings and misdirected expectations farther down the road.

[Editor’s note: Stay tuned for part II, “SMART goals are more specific… but can they really boost student outcomes?” next week!]


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