A Quartet of Educators Sound Off on Those Unrealistic Goals

Last week I pointed out that the Wake County school board has instituted a deeply flawed goal: specifically, of achieving an annual 95% graduation rate by 2020. (That sounds like a good goal, doesn’t it? It would surely be a fine thing to achieve, but to set it as a goal was simply foolish.) After I wrote the post criticizing the goal and explaining why it’s misguided, I asked some of my educator friends what they thought when their management instituted goals that were unrealistic.

A middle school teacher in Hillsborough, NC, Samantha Dunaway Bryant, wrote:

After 21 years teaching, I no longer waste a second of my time thinking on such things (if indeed I ever did–I’m not sure I did). Education is not such an easily quantifiable thing. The moments that matter and change lives are about relationships and lasting influence, not about scores on a test or number of kids handed a diploma. Every attempt to make the process objective is an exercise in futility or a marketing ploy by amateurish and clumsy marketers.

“Amateurish and clumsy” — that’s a pretty apt description. But it’s good to remember an “amateur” is someone who does something out of love for it. The people who make goals like the “95% by 2020” goal are not doing so out of malice. They truly believe they are doing something that will help schools and the school system get better, that setting the goal will lead to achieving something awesome on behalf of the students. But their belief and their sincerity cannot make up for the clumsy nature of the untenable goal.

Angie Williamson Mills, who taught public middle school for 18 years and has spent the last 10 years in public school administration, said, “Having been in charge of collecting graduation rate data at a high school in SC for 6 years, that goal is ridiculous and definitely setting all up for failure. What is being done to prevent dropouts?” She also wrote:

The largest jump I have seen from year to year from any one school in graduation rate is 3-4%. I would love to know the formula used in NC for calculating graduation rate. How does NC handle special needs students who will not earn a state HS diploma (which in most high schools is between 3-6% annually)? How are students who drop out but earn a GED (which in most high schools is 4-8% annually) calculated into the graduation rate? How are 5th year graduates included in calculating graduation rate?

Excellent questions! And those questions get at the heart of why a simple, single numerical goal is a trap: because if the pressure is on, the easiest way to meet the goal is to change some definitions so that the numbers come out more favorably — in other words, to cheat.

I particularly like her reference to the year-over-year fluctuations in graduation rate. As the numbers of students coming into and leaving the system change over the years, and the makeup of the student population changes, it is only natural for the rate to change — sometimes only a little bit, sometimes more radically. Thus, if a 95% rate were achieved one year, would there be any guarantee of sustaining that 95% rate into the future? In a word, no, but the goal is to achieve the target rate annually.

Having a goal isn’t bad, but having a bad goal isn’t helpful. (Image: “Goals,” by Robert Degennaro, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Beyond the Wake County district’s goal, though — which caught my eye because I live here — managers at higher levels of education impose unrealistic goals, too.

An English professor differentiated between how she treats goals from different levels of management. She explained that she and her colleagues meet regularly to discuss their classes and agree on the goals they intend to pursue, and in addition she takes her department chairperson’s goals very seriously. “I am more likely to ignore” goals from higher levels in the college, she said.

I roll my eyes. Usually the goals are broad and vague — “good customer service” is one. (No, really, we provide “signature service” like Time Warner Cable. Ugh). Management that hasn’t ever done my job, hasn’t been in the trenches a bit, but believes it knows how to do my job better than I do, is completely ignored — often with hostility.

She did, however, express her willingness to participate in meaningful projects and goal-setting exercises, a sentiment that I’ve heard from other teachers. “I’ll participate in the process,” she said, “because I firmly believe that if you don’t vote (semi-figuratively) then you don’t get to complain — and maybe you don’t get a say next time, either.” I find that to be rather common because teachers want to do well and want their students to do well — but giving them an arbitrary target to meet, without understanding what it entails or what resources might be needed to meet it, does not help them.

Finally, massage therapy instructor Danny Birt posed another set of excellent questions that we might wish management — whether college administrators or school board members or whoever — would consider:

The more nebulous the goal in day-to-day life, the less attention will be paid. While having a quantitative goal makes it more distinct (in this case, 95% graduation rate), what is a teacher going to do differently in their everyday school life? How does one teach, for example, six point five percent better than last year? Which students will a principal decide comprise the five percent which will not graduate? How does everyone coordinate which efforts must be made? Maybe if they have specific objectives which lead toward the overall goal they may come closer to achieving the desired result.

And that is the crux of the matter: setting the goal without understanding the system — the inputs to it, the influences on it, its capabilities and limitations — provides no guidance for meeting the goal. It would be far better to lay out a coherent, realistic plan of action (as Danny said, “specific objectives which lead to the overall goal”) and then figure out what gains that plan is likely to achieve.

What do you think of problematic goals in general, and education goals in particular? I’m grateful to everyone who contributed comments, and welcome more! Add a comment below, send me a message, or even stop me on the street somewhere and let’s talk about what needs to happen to provide students and teachers with the tools they need to succeed.

Thanks to all!

Some final notes:
– The post that led to this one is The Local School Board’s Deeply Flawed Goal.
– For a deeper look at the education system and how it can be improved, check out Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It.
– If you’ve read all the way to here, thanks very much! And I’d be pleased if you’d subscribe to my newsletter.

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2 Responses to A Quartet of Educators Sound Off on Those Unrealistic Goals

  1. AvatarScott C. Pangburn says:

    One of the “how do you quantify that” are students who don’t test well (performance anxiety?), but can accomplish the tasks taught. Granted, this lends itself more to vocational aptitude, but the math, science, and other classroom skills apply. How many students fit this category? I’ve no idea. How many don’t graduate, or get a GED, or go into vocational training, would impact the graduation rate, but their individual success may not be measured. How do you evaluate a student who can identify parts of a cell while looking through a microscope, but can’t answer questions well on a piece of paper? Perhaps I’m off track. Statistics can be manipulated to be 100% accurate while being essentially useless, in my not so educated view.

    • You’re absolutely right: evaluation is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is that some students perform well in one context and not so well in others. There aren’t any easy answers! (For students or teachers.)