Good goal – three principles for better targets in schools

Nearly five years ago I wrote a blog post on why I thought assigning target grades to individuals is a bad idea.

While I’d always felt uneasy about it, the work of institutional psychologists Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham gave me a more nuanced understanding of why imposing target grades –  performance goals – on pupils in school was at best distracting and at worse actively damaging.

For those interested in why I thought and still think this, the post can be found here – in the years it’s been out there nobody has yet explained to me what I’ve got wrong. I also know lots of schools still do use target grades with individual children.

Anyway.

I’m not sure what more I can say about this now so over the last year I’ve switched focus.

Pupils are not the only people in schools assigned targets.

In one form or another most of us have them. They are supposed to be a central driver of school improvement. Many of these goals and targets are tied into formal processes affecting pay and career development.

Given their centrality and importance a great deal of care should go into forming the goals we set for and in schools. I know in some places this is true. I am also sure all those setting goals believe the targets they develop are well thought through and appropriate and have done their best in situations of huge complexity with little guidance.

But – having read up on goal setting theory over the last year I think lots of us could do it lots better.

It’s important to be clear about the scale of the challenge.

Setting goals and targets in schools is really difficult.

Schools are very complicated, multi-faceted and dynamic places doing many things at once.

There are lots of moving interconnecting parts sometimes working at cross purposes to each other. Trying to set meaningful goals can feel like pinning the tail on a bucking bronco in a hurricane. Blindfolded.

This can easily make target setting farcical.

Having a goal in one area does not permit other important but untargeted areas to be neglected and it is impossible to draw up a list of targets accurately encapsulating all aspects of any teacher’s role. It would be unwise to try. A teacher can’t say they are going to devote less effort to tutor duties and more to departmental targets, especially – for example –  if an unexpected personal crisis in a form group suddenly demands lots of time. The ever-changing nature of schools can make targets set in September irrelevant by Christmas – anyone who has been through a timetable change, an Ofsted inspection, a high stakes departmental review or an unexpected global pandemic knows this well.

The results of all this fluidity and instability varies from place to place but there is some commonality of experience.

In some schools targets are set for departments and teachers in September and then forgotten all about once the school year is in full swing. A few months later an email reminder about interim reviews prompts a brief flurry of anxiety and evidence gathering activity and then in the summer term, exhausted and with an eye on the holiday, everyone pays lip-service to the final review which has practically no bearing on anything whatsoever. Senior leaders recognise the futility of it all and vow to do better but by September other pressing concerns means nothing has really changed. In other places big dumb data is used clumsily to form targets which leads to wildly inaccurate judgements about general competence.

None of this does any good at all.

Perhaps because so many of us feel or have felt that target setting in schools is a bit of a nonsense too little attention has been paid to what makes a target good or bad. If they are – and in many places I think they are – pointless then it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of time getting them right. They become a paper exercise to get out of the way so people can concentrate on their actual job.

My sense is a lot of schools only have them because now all workplaces have them.

Typically most targets set in schools tend to be of two types.

The first is the sort of data based target I’ve already mentioned. Examples of this might be a certain percentage of pupils achieving or exceeding their target grade, or a department improving its proportion of pupils reaching a grade 4 or 5 at GCSE. Such targets are often based on whole school targets which are then cascaded down to departments and then individual teachers.

Such targets are what Locke and Latham would describe as ‘performance goals’ and are dependent on those assigned them having the capacity and resources to achieve them. They are informed by an assumption the target will motivate those working towards it and – by implication – that the absence of the target would make improvement less likely.  

This is a lot of assumption!

 Issues with such targets are compounded when they are made what schools often call ‘aspirational’ which often really means knowingly unrealistic. Locke and Latham have much to say on these sorts of targets – which they call ‘stretch goals’, which I want to discuss in more detail later.

The second common category are targets based around the completion of a task. Examples of this might be the efficient management of the options process, or training staff on using a new piece of software to track homework. Such targets probably don’t do much damage but they don’t do much good either as – effectively – they are really just aspects of someone’s job selected pretty much at random. Targets based on simple task completion – getting something done – can’t on their own be drivers of real improvement because they are usually logistical not strategic – often more about recognising what is already being done then finding ways to do things better.

Perhaps then it would be better if we did not bother with targets at all. Perhaps they are one of Joe Kirby’s hornets. Indeed a few schools, I think Adam Boxer’s is one, have done away with them altogether and have well formed reasons for doing so.

I’ve felt this in the past when unrealistic or pointless targets have distracted me from activities and strategies I believed would lead to genuine progress.

But targets do not have to be bad. And there is lots of evidence good goals do lead to much faster improvement than having no goals at all. Multiple studies in institutional psychology have found this to be true. One meta-analysis organised by Edwin A. Locke shows 51 out of 53 robust studies of goal setting found benefits to specific and challenging targets compared to having no goals or vague meaningless ones[1].

I think goals and targets are worth the bother.

I think making improvements to those we set in schools can make for more motivated teachers, greater job satisfaction and fairer more meaningful performance management.

Done well I believe goals can lead to improvement. I think they have the potential to be butterflys.

I’ve looked at available research on goal setting and performance at work and developed some principles schools can use to create targets that have genuine positive impact.

I know the research I’m drawing on does not in the most part come from education and there are issues with this – I’d be grateful to anyone who could point me towards robust school-based research on goals and task performance. In its absence I’m hoping at least some of the following principles will prove at least interesting and hopefully useful.

  1. Assure commitment to goals by developing them collaboratively.

Howard J. Klein, Joseph T. Cooper and Christina A. Monahan are concerned about how little most places of work do to ensure their goals are shared by the people who work in them. They summarise early research by saying ‘goal commitment was typically assumed rather than assessed and not sufficiently understood or examined given its central role, and inconsistency defined and measured’.

They have little confidence things have improved much since the mid 1980s[2].

This accurately describes the situation in many schools too.

Too often leaders assume teachers are committed to goals that are imposed upon them without any meaningful consultation.

Transformative Leader models of management are particularly vulnerable to this. Many of us will be quite familiar with how this happens – at the beginning of the school year the Head stands in front of the assembled staff and tells them ‘our goals for this year are X, Y and Z.’

The Head them assumes the goals they have imposed on their staff will be accepted and expects everyone to demonstrate commitment in their work. Leaders concerned about levels of commitment might try to ensure it by calling the imposed goals ‘non-negotiables’ or using other tough high falutin’ language to show just how much they mean business.

While there will be contexts in which this might make sense – for example in the very early stages of a turnaround – this approach is usually a mistake.

Those who have had unilaterally developed goals imposed upon them are far less likely to be committed to them than if they had been involved in their development. Most teachers – of course – will not loudly proclaim their lack of commitment to imposed goals to their superiors, or even think about it very much but they probably won’t work particularly hard or effectively towards them either.

Those simply imposed targets are much more likely to form their own personal goals and pursue these while doing the minimum they can in order to appease managers who may not actually be personally committed either. On occasion not assuring personal commitment might even mean teachers having goals at odds with those of the school they work in. A good example of this might be a teacher in a school they hate and want to leave – here a disgruntled teacher might devote more time and effort to visible CV building activities than working towards dictated school improvement goals. There is no failsafe guard against this– personal ambition does not always sit comfortably within institutional priorities, but there are ways to reduce tensions and foster greater alignment.

Leaders who meaningfully involve those they manage in goal setting are far more likely to get personal commitment. This does not have to mean frustrating lengthy meeting that never go anywhere. Perhaps the best way to do this is to create a genuine dialogue in which over time ideas, concerns and potential solutions and ways forward are discussed freely and openly. This means targets will be representative of a plurality of views and more likely to be regarded as shared and not dictated.

Leaders and managers following this approach might at times be surprised or even frustrated by the priorities and associated goals those they manage want to commit to. Expecting everyone to identify identical problems and solutions would be unrealistic given disparate backgrounds and levels and types of experience.

For leaders humility and honesty around who is best placed to assess need and develop goals is very important here.

Those who have followed my thinking and work over the last few years will know I’ve been strongly influenced by the BBC podcast ‘13 Minutes to The Moon’ which describes the Apollo 11 mission in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever walk on the lunar surface.

Two things stand out.

The first is just how astonishing the scale of the task was and the second is just how young those who achieved it were. The average age of Mission Control was twenty-seven. In a particularly striking part of the podcast a twenty-six-year-old flight engineer described a moment he had to make a split-second decision as to whether to abort the mission or not after a series of computer errors. He chose to go ahead and was right to. And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision because this was a system he had developed. He owned it. As the person closest to the problem he was the best person to solve it.

This can be an instructive lesson for those responsible for setting targets and goals for others. Often – perhaps usually – those lowest in a hierarchy are those best positioned to know what their goals should be. This principle has been supported by studies conducted by Harry Levinson, whose work is quoted by Steve Kerr and Douglas LaPelley in their work on stretch goals. They summarise his work by writing:

“goals must be established with extensive employee involvement.. the most useful performance feedback comes from peers, in part because higher management will invariably be unaware of structural impediments and other significant barriers to achievement.[3]

There are clear implications for schools – in most circumstances it is more likely an English Department will know and understand why pupils are underachieving on exam questions on Frankenstein and what to do about it than the Head Teacher is. Members of the English department will probably be best placed to know how fast improvement is happening and to give feedback to each other on it.

If true it makes more sense for the department to develop their own goals than it does for goals to be imposed upon them by a nominal superior. In circumstances when there is genuine reason to doubt a team or individual has the capacity to develop their own goals it is better to build this capacity than it is to impose targets upon them.

In summary then – and this sounds so obvious as to be almost trite – for goals to have any impact people must be personally committed to them. Personal commitment is more likely if people have a voice in the formation of their goals.

But there is much more to it and by bearing other principles in mind we can make commitment to goals more likely.

  • Make goals challenging but attainable.

In many schools ‘aspirational’ data driven targets have become common.

This typically means setting goals that everyone knows are unrealistic in – I think – the hope if you aim for the moon you’ll fall amongst the stars.

I think this approach to target setting is misguided.

Aspirational targets are what would be described in Institutional Psychology as “Stretch Goals”. They have a long history and have been well researched.

Stretch goals are designed to be transformative.

The idea is by setting goals that are deliberately very improbable then you create the conditions for a whole paradigm shift and exponential improvement. The belief is people can get so locked into one way of doing something they can’t see dramatically better ways and only by changing their entire frame of reference can they break out of their old limiting mental models.

I heard a good example of how this can work a while ago. The story involved a novice ultrarunner who smashed a record simply because they did not know other runners stopped for a few hours each day to rest. They assumed everyone just kept going and so – although not particularly quick  – they ended up breaking the previous fastest time by hours. This was not something the other athletes had even thought to do.

As attractive as they sound stretch goals are very difficult to get right and come with many health warnings.

Most people assigned stretch goals find them ridiculous and pay little attention to them. This is quite logical. Not doing so can be dangerous to self-esteem and sense of worth. Those who believe these goals to be genuine and try honestly to meet them quickly demoralised and even despondent as they fail and fail regardless of what they do and blame themselves.

Stretch goals appeal most to schools with the poorest results because the dizzyingly high stakes of success and failure make rapid improvement an ethical imperative.

For those performing worst this might make paradigm change seem not just desirable but necessary.

Schools pursuing this approach should be aware organisations that successfully use stretch goals reward those assigned them for progress towards the goal. They also make sure there are other more realistic targets too, which helps mediate some of the negative implications. Crucially institutions that have used such goals best know that they should not punish failure against them because this is a sure-fire way to demoralise and anger their employees.[4]  For schools this might mean that while their eventual goal is tripling GCSE 5+ passes, punishing teachers by withholding pay-rises or pursuing punitive competency measures the first year this isn’t achieved is likely to be highly counterproductive. They would almost certainly be better off recognising and rewarding more incremental progress towards this goal.

Rewarding progress towards a goal is an important aspect of what Locke and Latham call ‘learning goals’. These are distinct from what they describe as ‘performance goals’ because these are the steps towards what an organisation or team wants to ultimately achieve but not the ultimate achievement itself.

Learning goals aim to get people to learn how to do a specific part of their job better in the hope the eventual result will be an overall improvement in performance. In a school trying to improve examination outcomes this could mean setting a target of increasing ratio in do now quizzes by learning how to set questions that are accessible but require effortful thought. Once this goal is achieved the learning goal might change to increasing pupil thought in questioning sessions through the use of mini-whiteboards. Over time the accumulated result of these improvements should be the realisation of the overall target of better exam grades.

How challenging should these targets or goals then be?

Negative implications of assigning stretch goals might make it seem better to set easily achievable targets instead.

There is good evidence this is not true.

People – hearteningly – do generally appear to be more motivated by demanding, challenging targets than they do easy ones, or vague ones such as ‘just do your best’[5]. This is probably because self-esteem is built through achieving difficult things. Vague targets are ineffective because it’s usually impossible to tell whether it has been achieved or not. For example, issuing a target of ‘improve the quality of maths education at Gasworks High’ isn’t likely to be particularly effective because nobody can really say for sure if it has been achieved, which means the target can’t generate the sort of specific positive feedback that further motivates a team. High targets are also more likely to align personal and institutional goals – in most contexts people are aware high achievement result in reputational and often financial reward. People are just as aware that achieving easy goals is far less likely to lead to positive personal outcomes. Organisations setting high targets are tying institutional improvement to personal gain, which maximises the chances of personal commitment.

High targets work better than low targets – so long as they are perceived to be attainable, and a key component of the attainability of a goal or target is whether the person or team assigned it have the resources to achieve it.

This – when considered carefully – can be uncomfortable for those responsible for setting targets.

Too often in schools targets and goals are set without consideration of the resources a team or person has to work with or the constraints within which they work. A good example of this might be setting a very challenging data based target on the performance of a challenging GCSE class taught by a Year One ECT. If this teacher has not yet developed the knowledge and skills required to meet this target then it will do nothing but demoralise them. If a school only allows a history GCSE cohort two hours instruction a week for two years then expecting them to meet the same standard as pupils receiving the hours recommended by the exam board is just not realistic. If a school leadership has not taken effective steps in dealing with disruptive behaviour then expecting brilliant results will lead to disappointment for everyone. In all these cases those assigned a target have not been provided with the resources they need. They will fail and associated resentment is understandable.

This is complex in schools. Managing them means balancing resources carefully and compromises are inevitable. What’s given to one department, be it time, money, extra staffing or training, has to be taken away or withheld from another. While there is no way to completely get around this, these compromises should be acknowledged when targets are set. Demanding the achievement of high targets from a team that doesn’t have the capacity to achieve them is unfair and just shouting ‘non negotiable’ at their complaints is a sort of cowardice.

  • Give feedback on progress towards goals but be wary of high stakes accountability.

A reason many appraisal processes don’t work well is those subject to them are too rarely given feedback on how well they are progressing towards their targets. When there is a lack of feedback it is obvious nobody thinks the goals and targets are important and valued, and if something is not important or valuable then there is no reason for anyone to take it seriously.

Consistent, regular and specific feedback against clearly defined goals is a strong moderating variable in target setting. Locke and Latham argue this is because ‘Feedback allows people to decide if more effort or a different strategy is needed to attain their goal[6]’, which allows them to refine and perhaps even create new goals. It is important to stress how vital regular feedback is – ideally this should be part of an organic process in which there is a high degree of interactivity between the setting of goals, actions and the revision of strategies and even targets. In schools this is probably best achieved through establishing and curating cultures in which success and failures in efforts to meet targets and goals are discussed openly by everyone involved at multiple levels.

Two meetings a year can’t do that.

Better would be to decide on overall priorities and goals and then break these down and sequence smaller action steps over shorter stretches of time that eventually add up to the desired performance goal. These smaller steps should be specific and clear so feedback against them can actually be about something. Shorter, more regular and less formal feedback on progress against smaller learning goals is likely to be much more effective than long, formal and widely spaced reviews. Such an approach is also more likely to identify when there are issues threatening success or even if a mistake has been made with a strategy towards a goal or even with the goal itself. By the time a twice-yearly formal meeting has taken place it might well be too late to really do much about an impending failure.

High stakes accountability doesn’t fit comfortably with this approach to target setting.

This is typically associated with top-down target imposition which impedes the ability of a team or individual to develop their own goals. Things are made even worse when the failure to achieve dictated visible targets is punished whether reputationally, financially or through any other means. When this happens those assigned targets are incentivised to find shortcuts and indulge in gamesmanship that can work against the spirit of the original target.

This institutional issue is well known and often referred to as targetism. Bill Gates discusses this in his book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’, in which he points out problems in setting short term goals that ignore the bigger picture. His most memorable example is why trying to reduce emissions by building new lower carbon fossil fuel power stations is a bad strategy –while they may reduce emissions in the short term the long life of these new stations locks societies into emissions for a long period of time and lead to greater pollution overall[7].

There are lots of examples of this in schools. Among the most well-known are the gaming of controlled assessments and the mass adoption of the ECDL qualification as a way of making schools appear more effective than they really were. In both cases short termist visible, high stakes goals compromised the genuine improvement of education. This was not mainly the fault of schools and teachers – this is typical when such goals are imposed on individuals and teams and then suspending a sword above them.

Principles into practice.

How might these principles look in practice then?

This is something I am still working on and I am certain I have not got this right yet, which is why I am really happy to share what where I have got to so far where I work. I’m hoping that as well as being useful this model will generate critique which should allow us to make it work even better.

At my school departments set their own targets – which we call action steps – and key performance indicators at the beginning of each half term.

While these targets will be shared and agreed with SLT line managers, agency and responsibility lies with the department. If a subject leader is inexperienced they will get more support and guidance in developing their targets from the Trust or other colleagues, but the aim of this is to build their capacity to make their own decisions and run their own departments. While the senior team does identify some school priorities Heads of Subject have genuine freedom to develop different targets if there are reasons why these aren’t appropriate for them.

Quality assurance measures are also decided upon by the department – while they may wish to deploy SLT or external support to help them with this they are under no obligation to. When there are scheduled external reviews we make it clear these serve the department – they are there to provide more evidence for subject leaders and teachers to make better decisions, not to force a change of direction. Those providing external support are fully briefed on departmental priorities and expected to serve not override them.

At the end of each half term Subject Leads review their own targets and quality assurance with their SLT link and decide whether or not they have been achieved. This meeting is open and collegiate – it is important these meetings are not confrontational and stressful. If people feel they will be negatively judged on failing to reach a target they are much more likely to either set easy targets that are too easily achieved and have little impact, or slant evidence to create an illusion that’s rosier than reality.

It is important failure to achieve a target is seen as an interesting puzzle to be solved rather than a flunked test. Was the target unrealistic? Was there too little support? Have the team bought into it?  If not why not?

Review meetings have many possible outcomes; goals could be rolled over with more support or even abandoned. New goals could be set. Sometimes the result will be a combination with some targets rolled over, some achieved and some changed. It’s organic and complex because schools are organic and complex.

Why pretending otherwise might make life seem simpler, to do so is to hide from reality.


[1] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Goal Setting Theory, 1990. In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P5.

[2] Howard J. Klein, Joseph T. Cooper and Christina A. Monahan. Goal Commitment. Chapter 6 in In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P65

[3] Harry Levinson summarised by Steve Kerr and Douglas LePalley in Stretch Goals. Chapter 3 In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P27

[4] Steve Kerr and Douglas LePalley in Stretch Goals. Chapter 3 In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P28.

[5] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Goal Setting Theory, 1990. In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P5

[6] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Goal Setting Theory, 1990. In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P7

[7] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/633968/how-to-avoid-a-climate-disaster-by-bill-gates/

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