Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Danger of Goals without Shared Vision

One more post on the lack of academic vision, and its dangers, and then I will turn my attention to Raj's Phase II closure recommendations, which are due out on Monday.

My experience in non-profit management and evaluation has convinced me that setting specific, measurable, achievable, concrete goals (SMAC) without developing a clear, shared vision is dangerous. Accountability is great, but demanding accountability for goals without a shared vision can lead to some perverse outcomes.

For example, if you are an elementary school principal and you know that you are going to be held accountable for the percentage of students who can read at grade level in 3rd grade, but you have limited resources, here's a strategy that might work:
  • Asses all students in 3rd grade on reading level in the first week of school.
  • Then, take all the students that already meet that goal, and put them in classes with high student-teacher ratios and the weakest teachers. That would allow you to focus your limited resources where it matters in terms of reaching your goals. Small classes with good quality teachers will be able to make a difference for those 3rd grade students not yet reading a grade level.
  • Also, 4th and 5th grade classes should have fewer resources than the earlier grades since those kids' academic outcomes won't affect your performance rating.

Do I really think a principal would do this? Not exactly. Principals want all students to learn. But you can be sure that some principals, when pushed hard to reach clear, measurable goals, will make decisions that are not in the best interest of all students because it is the only way they can figure out how to satisfy district demands and keep their jobs. And technically, a principal who followed the strategy outlined above would be found to be "successful."

Now, imagine if the district worked with staff and community members to develop a shared vision of a successful school district as one in which all students reach their individual goals and the love of learning is celebrated and fostered. The district could then set specific measurable goals of:

1) All 3rd graders report they are reading for pleasure; and

2) The % of students reporting that they enjoy going to school increases; and

3) The % of students reading at grade level increases at each grade.

(By the way, these are all statistics that are already collected by the district. It would not require additional data collection.) The results would be different. The strategies principals would use to reach these goals would be different, and the school environment would be different.

Children are born with a love of learning. Schools that focus on standardized testing and rote learning manage to kill that inherent joy in a few short years. I want to be part of a school district that has very high academic expectations for all students. But I want to see us follow the Van Asselt strategy (see Teach to the Top, Plenty of Recess, Art & Music), not one that puts standardized test scores as the only important goal.


Anonymous said...

For me, the danger of the milestone goals was not that schools or principals would focus on them to the exclusion of other goals.

I had a totally different concern. Carla kept saying how students who met these milestones (kindergarten-readiness, grade-level reading at third grade, etc.) were more likely to achieve success in school and life.

My concern was whether these statistical trends were causal or merely correlations. For example, studies show that standardized test scores are highly correlated with home values. Does that mean your child will do better in school if you remodel your bathroom?

Maybe it isn't the kindergarten readiness that leads to later success so much as the factors in a child's home that cause kindergarten readiness.

Maybe it isn't the ability to read at grade level in the third grade that leads to success later in life so much as the love of reading that contributed to the ability to read at grade level.

As far as a shared vision goes, I'm not sure that any such shared vision is possible for such a large and diverse community. I know that my hopes and goals for my children in school are not, by any means, universal. They don't even match those of other families in the same programs with my kids. They certainly don't match those of families from markedly different cultures and economic positions. While I presume that my children will go on to post-secondary education, that isn't even on the map for others. While I strongly want more academically challenging electives for my daughter in middle school, there are families of other students in the same class with her who are perfectly satisfied with the status quo.

I'm not sure what a shared vision for Seattle Public Schools would look like. Ms Santorno's document makes reference to a vision, but does not state it overtly.

Is it "Every student a reader, writer, mathematician and ready for college and work"?

Is it the six stated goals that begin "Quality and effective teachers for every stduent in every classroom throughout the district"?

Is it the six milestones?

What would Beth's shared vision look like?

Anonymous said...

I do know this:

The District cannot write a shared vision for all of us without consulting with us.

I'm getting pretty sick of the District telling me what I want and not listening when I tell them what I want.

Beth Bakeman said...

I can't tell you Beth's shared vision, because if it is mine, then it is not shared.

I think Carla should pay close attention to the work of the CACIEE. The information collected there could begin to inform a shared vision for the district.

And yes, I completely share your concern about the common problem of confusing correlation and causation.

If Carla really wants to increase kindergarten-readiness in Seattle, I think she has two choices: 1) Provide free preK to all while increasing family incomes and the educational level of mothers (all shown to help with kindergarten readiness); or 2) Decrease academic expectations for kindergarten.

I don't think either of these strategies are likely to implemented by Seattle Public Schools.