I’m Sick of SMART Goals #edchat


As new evaluation systems have crept up across the country, they’ve brought with them SMART Goals.

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

And I’m sick of them.

Here’s how it typically works: Teachers has to come up with their SMART goals for the year. They go through the criteria listed above. They come up with a terrible unambitious goal that they can make without difficulty. They achieve their goal. They get a good evaluation and a pat on the head for meeting their goals.

It’s Evaluation Theater.

Let’s break it down:

  • Specific. Sure. Be as specific as you want to be about the goal. No skin off my nose. But does it always need to be? Specificity denotes the idea that you know EXACTLY the thing that needs to be done.
  • Measurable. If it’s pretty specific, you can probably measure it in some way. No problem. But, again, do you always needs need to be able to have a clear measurement for your goal? If you can’t measure it, how is that inherently bad?
  • Attainable. This is is where things start to break down. To say that the goal is attainable is to play it safe. If a chief criterion of your goal is that you can attain it, it means that nobody is going to try and aim high for their goals. There is nothing built into the system to encourage them to take risks. I’d rather have Inspirational goals than Attainable goals.
  • Realistic. This is just to reinforce the Attainable strand. If it’s realistic, it’s something that’s within your reach now. You don’t have to work hard to get there. Why can’t we have unrealistic goals that we would need to work our butts off to achieve? If you fall short of an absurdly unrealistic goal, chances are you’ve probably made it further than you would have with the complete safe, realistic goal.
  • Timely. Something you can implement and accomplish in basically one year. Teaching, though, is the work of a lifetime. It’s full of constant refinements and sudden changes.

You take all of these elements together and they lead to boringly safe goals.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

From the day I decided to make education my life’s work, I always set one simple, yet completely unspecific, unmeasurable, unattainable, unrealistic, and untimely goal. It’s Aspirational:

I want to be a great teacher.

That’s it. That’s the entire goal I’ve had guiding my career to this point. When I started teaching, I didn’t know what it would take to become a great teacher, how long it would take to become great, my chances of flaming out along the way. I didn’t realize that this kind of Aspirational goal is insidious in that it its goalposts keep moving, always moving backwards, so you have to keep on pushing forwards no matter how much work you put in and how much you improve.

But I also didn’t realize the power of having such a simple goal in mind could bring clarity to the things I would do and the decisions I’d make. With an Aspirational goal, it’s possible to ask yourself, “Does this move me closer to becoming a great teacher?” If the answer is yes, move in that direction. If not, move along. Having a wildly crazy goal that you’re not sure you’ll ever reach can encourage you to work tirelessly to do your best. It’s the kind of thing that colors your work not in short bursts, but over a sustained, interesting life.

Aspirational goals are also much more forgiving than SMART goals. The timeliness of the SMART goal means you have little room to maneuver if you make a mistake or follow the wrong path. The Apsirational goal allows you to realize you’ve made a mistake, take the time to ponder what didn’t work, and then use that as a learning experience from which to move forward. I was a terrible first year teacher, but the lessons I learned from that year sustain me to this day.

Aspirational goals can also shift over time. Having left the classroom this year, I’m doing a lot of thinking about my goals and purpose. Does this shift help me to meet my Aspirational goal? It’s a bit of both, probably. But it also opens up new avenues for what my goals can be. As I’ve adjusted to my new role and responsibilities, I’m finding myself shifting from the short-term thinking needed to survive a change in work and moving towards long-term planning and ideas for how I can both move myself and my organization forward. It’s the work of years, and I don’t think I’ve figured it all out yet, but I know I’m not very interested in playing it safe.

And I still want to be a great teacher. Someday, I might get there.

12 thoughts on “I’m Sick of SMART Goals #edchat

  1. Dan, you nailed it. One of my goals is to put my students in situations that allow them to solve problems in our school and community. A measurement of that would be in the form of specific feedback, like when parents say, “I am so happy to know that what our daughter does in your class makes a immediate difference for her and others.” How do we measure that? Soon, policy makers will have to come to terms with the fact that it will be the stories people tell that guide decisions, not the numbers on spreadsheets.

    Love your stuff!

  2. Hi Dan,
    It is too bad SMART goals have such a bad rap these days, mostly because they are being used in the wrong way, for the wrong purpose. I am a planner-I love to know the big picture, and then I love to set goals to keep me focused and on track. My big picture is my aspirational goal-but in order to keep my energies focused on those things that matter most in helping me reach for the stars, I like to set goals for myself along the way. That includes life goals, not just work goals. But that is what works for me. It was kind of drilled into me by my personal trainer, and it kind of relates to learning as well. Here is a very different interpretation of SMART goals : http://smartstrengthandconditioning.com/
    Cathy´s last blog post ..Let Yourself Get Lost

    1. Love that, Cathy, and couldn’t agree more. SMART goals are critical for laying out where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and how you’ll know you’ve arrived. The degree of ambition and creativity in the goals is a function of the person making them; it shouldn’t reflect badly on the process.

  3. I love this, Dan.

    SMART goals have always rubbed me the wrong way because they feel fake when I’m writing them — particularly the measurable part. I always found myself writing crap like, “Our students will comprehend nonfiction text 75% of the time” or “We will move our end of grade reading results from 75% to 78% by the end of the year.”

    Nothing about those goals left me motivated or excited about my work.

    Pretty much, SMART goals are something that I do because I’m required to — not because they help me to set direction as a professional.

    Thanks for writing this,
    Bill Ferriter´s last blog post ..Learning Should Never be Lonely [SLIDE]

  4. I completely agree with this. I was actually told this year that the goal I chose, something I identified after much reflection that I needed to work on, was wrong. You see an experienced teacher should already be good at that. *sigh* So I chose another goal that was more appealing to my admins for paperwork purposes and had to work on my original goal in secret. Gotta love the system!
    Miss Trayers´s last blog post ..Digital Portfolios

  5. Your comments about SMART goals seem to have struck a chord, Dan.

    Wondering aloud…why are they used so widely in the first place? I don’t believe they are the solution to collective accountability. Yet I still find a void in how to better address this situation. Maybe SMART Goals are the result of poorly planned and implemented professional learning experiences for staff. Getting rid of SMART Goals will not lead to improved student learning.

  6. Good article Dan. “Someday I may get there”…guess what Dan, you will because you want to. I don’t think you hate SMART goals; I think you hate the way your supervisors are using SMART goals. You can use both Aspirational and SMART goals to get what you want. Like classroom education, one size does not fit all. SMART works in some ways. Aspirational works in some ways. Stretch or Process works in some ways. The main problem is that we don’t have some leaders stretching people, but, rather, some try to “box” people in according to mandates or expectations. The wrong way to lead. Regardless…great article!

  7. Maybe there is no need to use SMART goals in education. They fit very well in the non-education industries. Maybe education needs to figure out its own way to get educators to set goals. There is nothing wrong with setting SMART goals or AIM, CLEAR, EXACT, FRAME, HARD, … you name it. SMART specifically works well in a competitively business environment. It provides a framework to keep employees on task and headed towards a bigger picture. That is hard to quantify in the education world. Teachers aren’t all heading to the same path at the end of the year, at least they shouldn’t be. Their students will all be in different places mentally, physically, and emotionally. While you can move through content at the same pace, it doesn’t mean the students are with you. I read more about the use of SMART goals in the financial and social media sectors of business. I would be hard pressed to try and see these applied to teachers.

  8. I like your take and have real issues with teaching goal setting to ineffective people. I think they should be focused on habits. People with effective habits should be taught to set goals they want to achieve, then should be taught to analyze their goals against the SMART principles of goal-setting.

    My biggest pet-peeve with SMART goals? Over the years the meaning of the acronym has been lost. You have R as “realistic”, which many people do. I don’t know why that is the case, because realistic and attainable stand for the same concept. In an earlier version of SMART (over 20 years ago) the R stood for “Relevant”, which implied that the goal-setter should check to see if their goal is appropriate in terms of their overall mission. It is related to the famous “climb the ladder of success to find it leaning against the wrong wall” quote, oft attributed to Steven Covey who used the analogy in his Seven Habits book.

    Anyway, I liked your message. Thanks!

  9. Wonderful post, Dan. SMART goals have their place (widget manufacture comes to mind), but education is inherently messy and personal and subjective. And no student, or educator, was ever lit afire by a “realistic” goal. Kudos to pursuing your personal best.

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