Most schools structure their improvement goals using the popular goal-setting acronym known as S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound). The S.M.A.R.T. format has been a time-honored tool for schools attempting to achieve desired outcomes.

Many experts feel that the S.M.A.R.T. goal approach satisfies the necessary requirements for successful school improvement planning. However, some critics argue that the approach is limited and dispassionate for highly effective goal setting, saying this format is more focused on compliance and less on motivation and the energetic execution of a goal. Even though S.M.A.R.T. does provide a solid foundation for goal setting, the following five items should also be considered by principals.

Execute Needs Assessment and Identify Priorities

To identify the appropriate priority areas for a school, a pervasive and thorough needs assessment must occur first. Afterward, overarching needs or priority areas based on the results of the comprehensive needs assessment (CNA) must be developed. From these identified priority areas, the school district should conduct a root-cause analysis for each overarching need using strategies such as the 5 Whys or fishbone diagrams to correctly determine the cause of the overarching need and to create a compelling goal to address the problem. Effective goal setting is heavily dependent on the quality and timeliness of these school improvement strategies.

Establish “Stretch” Goals

Educational leaders should establish high, but reasonable, expectations for goals. Rigorous or “stretch” goals are important because most individuals and organizations underestimate their ability to improve for fear of failure. S.M.A.R.T. goals were considered stretch goals when the concept was first introduced, but today, most schools and districts are very familiar with how to write an effective S.M.A.R.T. goal. Educational writer Dennis Sparks suggests that schools often surprise themselves with their positive results if the stretch goal is strongly connected to staff and student learning. When schools use stretch goals in their improvement planning, they can propel their organization toward steady growth each year.

Avoid Disconnectedness

It is important for educational leaders to avoid an atmosphere of antipathy or even apathy among their stakeholders by creating goals that are not supported by effective professional learning. In his book Leading for Results: Transforming Teaching, Learning, and Relationships in Schools, Sparks stipulates that educators experience professional development that is disconnected from the student learning outcomes it is supposed to produce in the classroom. Principals should carefully monitor the goal-setting process—and the related professional learning—to ensure that disconnectedness does not occur.

Create Fusion of Desired Outcome and Process Goals

Educational leaders can create excellent goals for their organizations by fusing their desired outcomes (S.M.A.R.T. goals) with their identified processes to achieve those goals. In her article titled “The Science of Goal Setting,” Vanessa Van Edwards states that determining the outcome plus the process is the most important step in goal setting. Edwards further implies that most goals fail when the goal lacks either the desired outcome or the selected process to accomplish the goal.

Add Powerful and Emotionally Compelling Goals

To create a goal that will energize its constituency, the goal needs to possess emotional and compelling attributes. For example, consider the following attributes of effective goal setting from The Reflection Guide to Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected by Jim Knight, Jennifer Ryschon Knight, and Clinton Carlson:

  • Specific and measurable
  • Reachable
  • Easy to implement
  • Powerful
  • Emotionally compelling

The last two attributes are often the two that generic school goals lack in their improvement plans. It is vital that schools, especially struggling and turnaround schools, create school improvement goals that are powerful and emotionally compelling for their faculties, students, and educational stakeholders.

In most cases, a school gets only one opportunity to energize and galvanize their educational stakeholders with their school improvement plan. That critical time is when the school leadership first introduces the improvement plan at the beginning of the school year. It is like those Super Bowl commercials that advertisers pay millions of dollars to broadcast each year. There is only one Super Bowl each year, and likewise, there is only one initial unveiling of a school improvement plan and its goals to a faculty at the beginning of the school year. With that said, a powerful and emotionally compelling improvement plan goal can be revisited throughout the school year to help maintain focus and energy. An example of this type of goal could be:

Our school leadership team, with input and ongoing help from our collective faculty and educational/community stakeholders, will increase student performance on the Georgia Milestones by 5 percent by the end of the 2018–19 school year by implementing _____________ strategies or processes with high fidelity and continuous progress monitoring.

By identifying the major issues and processes within its school-improvement goal, it is clear how the school plans to accomplish its desired outcome. Sparks recommends that educational leaders use the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, to identify the most important issues and strategies to address. Richard Koch, author of The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less, encourages leaders to carefully determine the few key priority areas on which to focus their efforts for success. From my perspective, school staffs greatly appreciate this acute and prudent approach by the organizational leadership to improvement planning.

Chris LeMieux, EdD, is the metro Atlanta-area program assessment specialist for the Georgia Department of Education’s School and District Effectiveness Division.

Sidebar: Making It Work

To create highly effective goals for a school improvement plan, a principal should:

  • Work closely with the school leadership team, school governance/advisory council, parent advisory council or PTO/PTA, booster club leaders, and other important stakeholders to conduct an effective needs assessment for the school.
  • Train the leadership team on how to use effective root cause analysis to identify overarching needs and to prioritize the needs.
  • Collaborate with the best and most creative writers and researchers on the school staff to write powerful and emotionally compelling goals (ideally two or three) to effectively resolve the school needs priorities from the school improvement plan.

To Learn More….

The following resources explore S.M.A.R.T. goals and their effectiveness: