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More Than a SMART Goal: Staying Focused onn Student Learning

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Setting data-informed, high-priority SMART goals is a critical step in school improvement that is widely acknowledged. However, goals themselves don’t drive improvement; they must be aligned with the school improvement process, curriculum, instruction, assessment practices, mandates, and professional development. Understand how to properly use the SMART goal process to effect change and achieve real school improvement.

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Chapter 1: The Nature of Systems Improvement

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See it big, and keep it simple.

—WILFERD PETERSON

Years ago, Anne took advantage of an opportunity to spend some quality time with her younger brother—and get a free golf lesson. Rob was a card-carrying Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) member and the head teaching pro at Honey Bee Golf Course in Virginia Beach.

As they headed to the driving range, Rob quizzed her: “Why do you play golf, and where do you see golf in your future? How important is it in terms of your life goals?”

Anne responded dutifully: “I play because it’s fun. I don’t have plans to join the pro circuit, and it’s only mildly important to me because it demands more time than I have to give it right now.”

Once they reached the range, Anne thought that if she just started swinging, Rob would have to stop asking questions, but he persisted. “Just a little more background will be helpful. What is your typical score? What would you say are the strongest and weakest points of your game? How good do you want to get?”

 

Chapter 2: Less Is More

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What you focus on expands.

—CORA WHITTINGTON

In our search for the originator of the quotation “what you focus on expands,” it became apparent that the message crosses many different realms and genres. From the spiritual realm to the business world to personal psychology, the idea that focus spawns growth and meaning is ubiquitous. But how does this idea work in the life of a busy teacher, school principal, or central office leader?

The concept is pretty simple. What you give your time, energy, and attention to will grow. Put another way, energy flows where attention goes. The underlying challenge for educators is finding the right thing to focus on amidst an endless stream of worthy options. For too many, the trap of busyness creates a barrier to thoughtful focus, resulting in a continuous cycle of work for the sake of getting things done. People can usually remember all the things they did during a day or week, but they can’t always articulate what they accomplished. Peter Drucker, writer and management consultant, once said, “Taking action without thinking is the cause of every failure” (as cited in Shrawder, 2006, p. 4). Even if an action doesn’t result in a failure, all those things that were completed may have precluded opportunities to do the few things that would have allowed the doer to pursue a better direction.

 

Chapter 3: Putting SMART Goals to Work

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In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.

—ROBERT HEINLEIN

How many schools and districts incorporate or require the use of goals? We’d hazard a guess to say that the vast majority do. School improvement plans require goal writing, and strategic plans employ goals as a component part of the methodology. Superintendents are asked by their boards to set goals. Often, as part of the performance management process, individuals are asked to set goals at the beginning of the year, not to be seen again until they are reviewed during a formal year-end evaluation and then only maybe.

Much time and energy is spent writing goals, which may or may not lead to tangible results. Goals seem to appear and then disappear as if writing the goal is what it’s all about. For too many schools and school systems, writing goals has become an exercise in getting the task of goal writing done and off the list. It is a natural human tendency to want to complete a task and check it off our list of things to do. The sense of completion and accomplishment is refreshing. It fortifies us to move on to the next item while serving as evidence that we have made progress. However, viewing goals as tasks to complete does little to inspire goal-related action; more often than not, goal writing represents the end of the action. Unless goals guide actions that align everyone in the system, including students, toward the desired outcome of student learning, what is the point of the goal-writing exercise?

 

Chapter 4: Professional Learning by Design

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If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.

—W. EDWARDS DEMING

Learning Forward published its “Definition of Professional Development” in 2009: “The term ‘professional development’ means a comprehensive, sustained, and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement” (Learning Forward, 2010). If we consider PLC work through the lens of the definition of professional development, the connection is clear. Professional development is learning through reflection on collaborative practice.

In the busy world of schools, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the daily practice of teaching and learning holds the most potential for professional learning. The promise of such collaborative work toward the shared responsibility of student learning cannot be overstated. Oversimplification of the complexity of teachers’ work leads to the misconception that learning from their practice is something teachers do in addition to their real work or that they need others to tell them what to learn and when. School-based professional learning needs to be systematically designed into collaborative structures and processes while being articulated specifically over time until “professional development that fosters collective responsibility for improved student performance” is the new norm (Learning Forward, 2010). In this context, plans for professional learning should be:

 

Chapter 5: Impact and Implementation

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If gold represents the vision, then platinum represents the implementation.

—DOUGLAS B. REEVES

While helping schools and districts master the SMART goals process, we discovered that we needed to provide assistance way beyond training and coaching. Districts need support to help them situate SMART-goal writing and its use within the larger context of their work. Goals themselves don’t drive improvement; they must be aligned to the school improvement process, curriculum, instruction, assessment practices, mandates, and professional development. In order for goals to gain enough traction to have an impact, there must be a system that keeps us continuously focused on them. Indeed, unless we’re seeing short-term gains and increasing clarity regarding how we can work smarter, we soon become discouraged and move off course. It takes discipline at the beginning of new learning to stick to the methodology to gain momentum. This not only produces results but also increases our energy and excitement to see just how successful we can be.

 

Chapter 6: Engaging the Mind, Body, and Spirit

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Never lie to your horse.

—CHRIS COX

There is an emerging philosophy about the relationship between humans and horses called joining up. Once thought to be one of master and servant, the relationship is now viewed as a partnership.

At a recent joining-up clinic for horse owners, Anne watched a gentle cowboy work magic with one feisty steed after another. He began by removing some of the constraining equipment that has traditionally been used to control the horse. This was perplexing for the owners. After all, they had come to the clinic because they had been ineffective in controlling their horses; to remove the only control mechanisms they had seemed odd, if not dangerous.

The next step was to get the horse to move with the cowboy, not away from him. He gave the horse a gentle nudge in just the right place to signal the horse to move in one direction or another. Most people try to move a horse by pulling on the reins and halter. But the horse is bigger and stronger than the human, and when he decides he’s not going to move, jerking his head is only going to make him mad. The cowboy told the gathered owners that the day he realized that he had to work with the whole animal—body, spirit, and mind—was the day he became an effective horseman. He went on to say that, as the owner, you’ve got to work with the horse, get him to move by engaging his body, and then build a relationship by engaging his mind and spirit.

 

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