Why SMART Goals Don’t Work In Isolation

Most schools now use SMART goals of some kind. The exact terms vary, but SMART usually stands for something like:

  • Specific—the goal is tightly focused on a single area
  • Measurable—there’s a specific numerical target that defines success
  • Attainable—the goal is something we can reasonably achieve, with sufficient effort
  • Relevant—the goal matters in the larger picture
  • Time-bound—there’s a deadline by which the goal must be met

I’ll be honest: I have mixed feelings about SMART goals, and I’m guessing you have mixed feelings based on your experience, too.

My first issue is this: too often, in our drive to help people focus and get more specific and more measurable in their goal-setting, we eliminate the part that matters most: the reason we care in the first place.

As educators, we’re driven by the desire to make a difference in the lives of our students.

We want to inspire them.

We want them to take challenging courses.

We want them to graduate.

We want them to go on to great careers and colleges.

We want to see them soar.

(Notice a theme?)

We’re not so fired up about helping them move from an average of 63% on the pre-test to 82% on the post-test.

Tell me if it feels this way to you, too: the more specific the goal, the less it seems to really matter in the grand scheme of things.

And that’s not all that bothers me about SMART goals. Too often, they’re simply quantifications of magical thinking.

Do we have any specific reason to believe that our students will go from 63% to 82%?

Too often, the answer is no.

We need to ask ourselves: What we are we doing on a daily basis to create progress toward our target?

What actions can I take every day—and what can I specifically do today—to have a realistic shot at my goal?

SMART goals aren’t bad, but they aren’t sufficient. They aren’t motivating enough, and they aren’t actionable enough.

But it’s not too hard to complete the puzzle.

When we do, we end up with SMART goals in the middle of a model that looks like this:

Let’s look at each component.

Uncompromising Goals: Our Greater Purpose for Students

Ultimately, we need to be guided by our GPS: our Greater Purpose for Students.

Take any educator, move him or her to another school, and their SMART goals will be totally irrelevant. But their Uncompromising Goals will remain the same, because they’re what drive us as professionals.

Your GPS is the reason behind your SMART goals, and the reason you work so hard to develop habits for high performance.

Uncompromising Goals are the big-picture goals we’ll always be working toward. They’re what holds our focus—what keeps our eye on the prize.

Focusing on Uncompromising Goals is motivating…but it can also be a bit pie-in-the-sky. We need to have a lofty vision—dreams of our students soaring—but we don’t need our heads in the clouds all the time.

That’s where SMART goals can help us out.

SMART Goals: Monitoring and Validation

SMART goals help us keep realistic track of our progress, validate our theory of action, and adjust our effort as necessary.

When we have specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound goals, we’ll know pretty quickly if we’re off-track.

If you’re training for a marathon by walking your dog around the block twice a day, you’re probably deluding yourself. That level of effort simply isn’t going to produce the level of results you want.

So a more realistic plan would have you working up to longer and longer runs, culminating in the 26.2-mile marathon itself.

If a five-mile run pushes you utterly to your limits, you’ll know you aren’t ready yet. It’ll take more time and more training to reach your goal.

The key to using SMART goals effectively is to use them in the short term.

Too often, though, our SMART goals cover the whole year, which doesn’t give us the agility we need to adjust the plan.

If our approach is way off, and we don’t find out until June, we’ve missed a year full of opportunities to adjust.

High-Performance Habits: Building Our Muscles Every Day

Uncompromising Goals and SMART goals can get us moving and get us focused, but they’re not directly achievable.

You can’t wake up in the morning and do a goal. We achieve our goals through our behavior—through the actions we take.

And there’s no better way to achieve a goal that you’re focused on than to take consistent, concerted action every day. That’s what I call high-performance habits.

A high-performance habit incorporates the other two elements of the High Performance Triangle: strategy and tools.

Strategy determines our effectiveness; tools increase our efficiency; and habits create consistency.

More on Goals

As you can see, I’m fired up about this topic, because it has enormous potential for our students, staff, and schools. I’m cooking something up right now, and I’ll probably take this article offline after my new goal-setting materials are ready.

To make sure you don’t miss out, put yourself on the list here.

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Powerful Goal-Setting for Students, Staff, and Schools


Goal-setting is a key improvement practice that’s equally applicable at every level of education:

  • Individual students benefit from setting goals
  • When teachers set goals, their students can benefit
  • When schools set goals, their students and teacher can benefit
  • When districts and other organizations set goals, schools, staff, and students can benefit
  • When we set national or even international goals, everyone can benefit

We’ve all been part of goal-setting processes that haven’t benefited anyone, but we know the potential exists.

Goal-setting can be powerful…but not if we mess it up—and too often, we do. We write bad district goals, bad school goals, bad staff goals…and our students learn from our example.

To do better, we need to eliminate magical thinking.

Do You Believe In Magic?

There are plenty of people who believe that if you simply visualize something, or talk as if it were already true, you can “manifest” or bring about what you want.

This idea is closely related to goal-setting. Some people believe in manifesting because they know goal-setting works, and vice versa.

But this is where we have to be careful, because there’s no magic. If we believe that believing is all we need to achieve results, we’re fooling ourselves.

It’s such a big problem that we needed a phrase for this mindset: wishful thinking.

I’m convinced that a lot of what we call “goal-setting” is really just wishful thinking with numbers.

If I set a goal that “The percentage of students meeting standard on the end-of-course exam will go from 62% last year to 82% this year,” there’s a good chance I’m incorporating some wishful thinking.

Why should that score increase occur? What actions have I taken to bring it about? How do those actions align with what it’ll actually take? Do I have evidence that this particular set of actions will, in fact, produce that type of results?

If we don’t have answers to these questions, we just have wishful thinking—not the powerful goals we may think we have.

Making Goals Actually Work

What distinguishes a logical goal from a wishful-thinking fantasy?

A theory of action.

If we’re going to see a change in results, we need a theory of action—a hypothesized sequence of events that could reasonably produce the change we want to see.

Too often, our theory of action amounts to little more than “bibbidi bobbidi boo!

Sure, we may write our goals in S.M.A.R.T. format, or use a standard template, or otherwise fancy-up the process, but a goal without a clear TOA (theory of action) is simply well-organized wishful thinking.

Theories of Action At All Levels

At the school level, it’s likely that our overall goals are accountability targets that will require dozens of mini-TOAs.

For example, let’s say your school goal is to increase your graduation rate from 82% to 90% over the next three years. How are you going to accomplish that, exactly? Probably with an array of strategies, each of which might not produce an impact on your graduation rate that you can separate from other factors.

At this large-scale level, it’s helpful to use research and the experience of other successful organizations to identify promising strategies. The better your theory of action, the more likely your success.

At the individual staff member level, goals can link directly to instructional strategies and curricular emphases.

And at the student level, goals can link to particular study strategies, behavioral efforts, and other aspects of learning that are under students’ control.

I believe that goals at all of these levels work best when we use strategies and terminology that are aligned.

Now, the goals themselves may not need to be aligned—a district may need to focus on areas for improvement that don’t show up in student’s daily work, and a school goal may not be the biggest growth edge for a particular teacher.

But the process should be similar. We should be using—and modeling—the goal-setting principles and language that we want our students and our staff to use.

More Coming Soon

I’m keeping the lid on this for now, but I’m very excited about some new goal-setting materials I’ll have for you very shortly.

To make sure I get them to you, put yourself on the list here.

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Check out TheSchoolAdministrator.com

My friend Sam has started a new site at TheSchoolAdministrator.com to bring together insights from school leaders around the world.

The School Administrator

He explains:

I see the school as a big boat. The school administrator is the captain of the boat. If I’m a manager, I’m just keeping the boat afloat. I’m making sure we don’t sink. Being above water is good enough.

If I’m a leader, however, I’m communicating a vision of a school that doesn’t yet exist. It’s that school where all students are successful, where all the teachers are excited about what they do, where students enroll with gaps in their education, and graduate with those gaps filled.  I’m trying to row the ship toward that school. Knowing that I can’t do it alone, I have to inspire others in the ship to grab an oar and help me row.
My hope is that this site will provide a place where school administrators can learn from each other to inspire their staff to grab an oar.

Check it out, and if you’re a school leader who writes, get in touch with Sam.