Marking the spot: Before you reach your goals you have to define them

Marking the spot: Before you reach your goals you have to define them

A clearly-defined goal focuses attention and gives definition to the task at hand

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the endless nature of the debate over reform of elementary and secondary education in the United States.

"..hard not to wonder whether the debate over school reform has reached a point where debate in no longer possible."


"The data can appear as divided as the rhetoric. New York City’s Department of Education will provide you with irrefutable statistics that school reform is working; opponents of reform will provide you with equally irrefutable statistics that it’s not."

As happens so often with large-scale transformation efforts, decades of debate, billions of dollars and the efforts of millions of dedicated individuals have resulted in little change. What’s preventing progress here is lack of a clearly-defined goal that both focuses attention and gives definition to the task at hand.

It seems elementary, but this "results-focused" approach is counter-cultural for most. Instead of focusing on the result we want, we’re conditioned to put our faith in the activities that are supposed to get us there: "install this system and performance will improve" or "increase pay and quality will improve". 

In this line of thinking, activities are more important than the goal itself. Successful results, however, are rarely achieved this way.

The results-focused mindset, on the other hand, says “if success means X, then X is our goal.” Any and all potential actions are then judged on the extent to which they help achieve that “X”.

Educators at one school in New York City offered a real-world example: They defined success as advancing at least 22 underachieving students at least one grade level in reading, and doing so in 100 days. The impact of this Rapid Results project was remarkable: nine students advanced their reading by one level, fifteen by two levels and two by three levels; 23 in all, and all in less than 100 days.

Nearby, in Syracuse, New York, the school district has partnered with a non-profit organization, Say Yes to Education, to help every one of its 21,000 students achieve post-secondary success (defined as college or technical education). This includes financial access to college for all. No loans. If college is not affordable, the partnership will pay.

Naturally, the program has relied on the community as a whole – parents, students, local government and business alike. And in spite of a $50 million cut from the Syracuse School District's budget, the program continues. The community refuses to lose sight of its clearly defined goal.

The debate over school reform will continue for the foreseeable future. But in the meantime, teachers, students and administrators should be focused on real results and bottom-line improvements, marshaling resources in a way that explicitly supports the achievement of these goals. When the dust settles on the debate over education reform, we may find it is no longer needed.

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Matthew McCreight's blog post on The Economist Blog: The Ideas Economy

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