When SMART Goals Become Dumb

This post was originally posted by Johnny Bevacqua on: Figuring It Out

Our schools have embraced SMART Goals (Conzemius and O’Neal, 2002) as a vehicle for allowing focused conversations around school growth in the area of curriculum, instruction and learning.

SMART Goals as a definition (and an acronym) are:

Specific: focus on specific learning needs of students

Measurable: can progress be monitored and adjustments can me be made along the way

Attainable: Goals are realistic and team members are given time and resources

Results Orientated: outcomes are observable specific

Time Bound: all done within a time frame

With this in mind I would like to throw out some personal questions and concerns about SMART Goals as I have come to see them in action.

To be clear, I’m not against goal setting.  After all, if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.

 Having strategic goals, based on evidenced need, that can be monitored, is important for any school and teacher.

 However, when it comes to SMART Goals in schools, I wonder if we, at times, miss the mark.

 Process over results

 Recently I watched a video entitled “What Drives Winning?”  The speaker, Brett Ledbetter, shares his insights on what some of the most successful coaches in college and professional basketball say about winning and goal setting.

The most telling message from all these successful and respected coaches is that they don’t set goals based on results – instead they focus on “process and character”.

For example, Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics is quoted as saying:

I don’t even talk about goals.  As a team we never talk about it.  The only thing we talk about is process.

You can watch the video here – it is worth your 6 minutes:


 Most of the SMART goals that I have encountered usually reference student achievement results based on some sort of standardized test.  One of my discomforts is that an over reliance on test results can drive pedagogy – usually at the expense of empowered, personalized learning for students.  Teach to the test anyone?

To be clear – I am not against standards nor am I against students demonstrating success in their learning through standards. As a society we need to be sure that student learning and understanding is measured against accepted and agreed upon standards.

However shouldn’t the fact that we want students to learn and improve be the default position for every educator in the world?  Do we need SMART Goals to remind us that we want students to improve?

I would surmise that the basketball coaches interviewed in the video take “winning” as the default.  Coaches and players want to win.  That is a given.

Teachers want to students to learn and be successful in their learning.  Students are naturally born to learn and want to be successful in their learning.  That is a given.

What isn’t a given is the process of empowering students (and teachers) in their learning.  Perhaps SMART Goals should seek to strike a better balance between pedagogy and student results.

School Wide Fake

As a high school principal I have always felt that it would be extremely difficult to have one or two school wide SMART Goals that would be valued and meaningful for an entire school community.

Instead, we developed school wide priorities, based on legitimate evidence – that specific departments and teachers could plug into – in a way that was most meaningful for them and their students.

Take for example……Literacy.  I would suspect that most schools, at one point or another, have had some sort of literacy related goal.

Rather than have one very specific SMART goal for our school, we named Literacy, across all curricular areas as an important priority.

As an offshoot of that school wide priority, different departments and teachers were empowered to make some important decisions as to how that literacy goal could have the most impact for individual students.

Science teachers, as an example, spent a lot of time working with students on how to unpack vocabulary rich scientific text.  Some Humanities teachers discovered that they needed to spend  time assisting students with the skill of summarizing text.

Over time we identified similar priorities related to Digital Citizenship, Assessment and Grading Practices and Technology Integration (to name a few).

It was important that our school wide priorities allowed for teachers to be nimble and respond to the learning needs of each student in any given class or course.

We measure that which is easy

Sometimes I worry that an over-reliance and simplistic view of measurement causes us to measure that which is easy.

In a previous post I ask: What are we measuring in education?

Like Dean Shareski writes in this post: “I’m not anti-measurement.  I’m anti-simple”

As usual, I’m figuring things out.  Any feedback is welcome….


3 comments for “When SMART Goals Become Dumb

  1. February 12, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Great post Johnny. I too have a lot of concern with ‘SMART’ goals. Although I think that they are a good guide for developing goals, they only work when students (and staff) are driven to taken action and care about their goals. From my experience, students are often told to create goals and with limited room in the curriculum, they are provided little time and support. I too have reflected upon them http://readingwritingresponding.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/are-smart-goals-always-that-smart.html

  2. Alahrie Aziz-Sims
    February 12, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    I, too, struggle with this as a principal. The SMART goal process works for SOME metrics, but is not the approach for RESULTS in all metrics and sometimes their existence goes against the school’s philosophy and can subsume the real goals. I think this has really played out in schools where test prep has overcome actual teaching for learning.

    As the principal, metrics are an important part of my job. For teachers and students, this can be an important part of the feedback loop and can instill a sense of urgency and accomplishment. But, the actual outcomes are about systems, processes, and relationships – not the numbers themselves. My work centrally focuses on these things. Improving quality means we are more likely to reach the SMART goals.

    SMART goals can only be valuable with the correct data collection and data systems in place. This is an overlooked aspect of this process, which can lead to significant issues. However, as leaders, it is always part of our job to keep focused on the students and not just the data.

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