Show Me Your Goals, Sir

Suppose you are walking down the street, minding your own business, and a police officer stops you and asks you to present your goals. You can’t remember them… you don’t have them handy… and so he writes you a ticket. Everyone must have goals on hand.

Futuristic schlock? Maybe, but this is already happening in NYC public schools. All students are required to have goals in every subject—sometimes more than one in a subject. They must be prepared to recite their goals to any visitor (e.g., superintendent or other inspector) who questions them. If they cannot memorize their goals, they must have them handy (taped to their desk, for instance). The teacher is held accountable for these goals, which must be individualized, regularly updated, available as data, and communicated to students and parents.

The 2008-2009 NYC Quality Review rubric states that school leaders and faculty at “well-developed” schools (the highest category) “use procedures to regularly set measurable and rigorous learning goals for individual and groups of students in all core subjects that build on what they know and can do, and identify a series of next steps to achieve these goals in the designated period.” Moreover, “School leaders and faculty meet regularly with students (at least weekly) and periodically with their families to ensure that there is a clear understanding of the goals in all core subjects and timeframes set to increase student achievement.”

This sounds like a good idea; everyone benefits from establishing realistic goals and steps. But it raises both practical and ethical questions. I will focus on the ethical, since the practical concerns (mounds of paperwork, the sheer multitude of goals, and the conferencing time required) are obvious. Or if they are not obvious, visit a NYC public school and look at a student’s goal sheet. You may see goals in English (reading, writing, listening, speaking), math, social studies, science, physical education, health, art, music, and theater… perhaps with translations into Spanish or another language.

I understand why someone decided that goals should be required. If students do not know how to set learning goals for themselves, is it fair to leave them in the lurches? Can we justifiably leave children alone to set their own goals when we know that many will set none at all? Don’t goals help clarify the process (if not the subject matter) for everyone? Don’t they go hand in hand with individualized instruction?

These are valid points. But when we mandate goals—for all students, in all subjects—we enter strange territory. First, it is unclear whose goals these are. The goals supposedly belong to the students, but it is the teacher who must set and document them. They cannot come “from the mouths of babes”; they must align with standards or learning benchmarks. Nonetheless, the students must have them on hand and be prepared to tell them to anyone. They must take on goals that are not truly their own, and yet somehow “own” them.

The goal requirement blurs the line of responsibility. Who is responsible for the learning? If teachers must set goals for students, then students do not have to set goals for themselves. If the learning doesn’t happen, students can simply say that they never got their goals or never discussed them in conference. The focus is on documentation (what was sent out, discussed, and signed) than the subject matter and the learning of it.

More disturbing still is the erosion of privacy. Much of learning is a quiet matter of the mind: the way we reason, the way we go about solving problems, the flashes of ideas and understanding, the way we figure out how to do our work better. Alone we sort out our thoughts, focus on the material, and find our way through challenges. Of course, in a public school, much of learning is necessarily public. That does not mean we should destroy what little privacy remains. I would not tell my most important goals to an inspector or stranger. Once goals are made public, they are trivialized.

There is something strange about mandatory goals. In all my 20+ years of school I was never required to have goals. I was required to learn the material and complete my work. And that was sufficient. Sometimes I had a long view of what I was doing; sometimes I simply focused on the task at hand. I thought a great deal about what I was learning, but not so much about my goals, except for the most important ones.

A goal can be vital or banal. Mandating it (and setting the language for it) tips it in the direction of banality. We must watch the scale.

Diana Senechal


  1. Physics Teacher says:

    Some grand ideas that pollute industry eventually find their way into schools. Take, for example, the mission statement. I’m sure this is where the high rollers get these ideas. “Hey, it chewed up a few meetings in daddy’s company so there’s no reason it won’t work in 5th grade.”

    If kids are having problems coming up with goals, or at least stating them in the kind of language they think adults want to hear, they may wish to use the Educational Jargon Generator at

    I think more teachers should use the EJG. That way, when the administration has to sit and try to parse these random strings at meetings they may decide to limit the meetings to as few as possible and possibly to scratch the next great idea they’ve invented. Plus, if every kid they challenge spits out stuff like “generate mission-critical higher-order thinking to engage school-based relationships and to implement strategic units…and to pass chemistry.” you may find the admins hiding in their offices more often. I don’t think they’ll admit to not understanding the jargon.

    Just an early-morning thought.

  2. thaprof says:

    I keep thinking that the educationist elite can’t become any more stupid, but they always manage-seemingly on a daily basis.

  3. Ponderosa says:

    Our students have to set goals for each subject. These are usually pretty banal: “To get an A in Science class”, “To always do my homework for math class”, etc. Are they memorable or meaningful? I doubt it. But at least there’s little mind-numbing and onerous documentation required –yet. I’m pretty sure that’s coming to our district. I can’t wait to cut short lesson planning to do this kind of paperwork.

  4. Margo/Mom says:


    Sometimes I think that you must share with me an inclination to distrust any ideas that come from someone “in authority.” As a child of the sixties, I am a frequent questioner of “authority” and the things that derive from it. But, I am also a parent, and as a worker have taken on positions of “authority” and I have slowly come to soften such views and to appreciate things like goal-setting, feed-back loops and various means of ensuring widespread or individual follow-through on agreed upon, or otherwise necessary tasks.

    Things like Vision/Mission/Goals/Strategies and espcially Evaluation are nothing more than tools for organizing work. As a matter of fact, they can be pretty powerful tools–or they can be misused and abused. Just as a table saw makes a poor desk and a hammer is not well used as a paper weight, so I have seen these things perverted within eduation by educators who reject out of hand the possibilities that come from working collaboratively in an organized fashion with administrators, other teachers, or especially students and their parents.

    Physics Teacher–the online jargon generator may be tongue in cheek–but I have seen such things actually purchased by districts in order to provided properly worded goals for documents like IEPs and School Improvement Plans. It’s a little like doing your homework like copying off of your best friend’s paper. It just wastes time. Teachers (in my experience) actively resist thoughtful goals with measureable outcomes because it means that they will have to be held to doing something specific (which may be different from how they have been doing things in the past) with an accountability mechanism to determine whether what they did accomplished what they hoped. Where are you going, how will you get there and how will you know when you are there are very important questions that should be asked over and over again. This is not a violation of privacy in a context in which your livelihood is the imparting of knowledge to young people–whose lives will be impacted by their ability to learn.

    I recall–in a management class that I took–a hospital administrator who recounted their efforts to engage all employees in carrying out the core mission of their work. The actually had pocket cards on which a carefully thought through mission statement and over-riding goals were printed. These things were pervasive throughout the organization–and it was a large one. I don’t recall any of the specifics, except that one of the tenets urged consideration of the needs of the patient (I am carefully avoiding the words “customer service” since so many in education find that distasteful). This carries over to the way that floors are mopped, telephones answered, bills sent out, baths given, questions answered. There is no part of the work of a hospital that is not positively impacted by consideration of this goal.

    Certainly there are deeper, more individualized goals. In a health care setting there are treatment plans. It is not at all unusual to greet a patient/client/consumer/customer by asking “what are you here for today?” and to lead into something like “what are we trying to accomplish?”

    In a context that doesn’t blink twice about greeting students with metal detectors and backpack searches, carrying to the Supreme Court the right to strip search a student for over the counter medications, it seems a false argument to suggest that asking a student if they know what their goals for learning are is a violation of privacy. Are their students who feel violated by this? Or, more likely, are there just adults who are annoyed by the need to trade off the individual freedom to act as though they are a system of one for the benefit of including others in their decision-making process and demonstrating accountability?

  5. There is nothing wrong with setting up sub-objective (“goals,” if you will) in order to achieve an overall objective (“mission”). However, the process easily degenerates into pointless verbiage and bureaucracy when the people running it are not of the results-oriented type.

    Consider a commissioned salesman selling business-to-business. His personal mission is to make as much money as he can (which should, but does not always, align with the company making as much money as possible) A good sales manager will help him set up individualized goals to help achieve his overall goal, for instance:

    1)I notice you haven’t called on many new accounts this’s surely more comfortable talking with old friends, but you could probably do better if you develop some new business. Shall we set a target of 10 new business calls and 5 new business wins for the next quarter?

    2)You’ve been doing great with the Gerbilator product line, but not much action on Omegatrons. A lot of the guys & gals have found that Gerbilator buyers also like the Omegatron. I’d really like to see 5 Omegatron wins in the coming quarter.

    3)Maybe you’d be more comfortable selling Omegatrons if you had more knowledge of mechatronics technology. Let’s establish a goal for you to either take a class or read a book on the subject.

    This is a useful but time-consuming process that requires listening as well as talking. There is an educational equivalent, but I suspect it has little to do with what’s really going on with the goal-setting in NYC public schools.

  6. Lightly Seasoned says:

    My kids set writing goals every year. Sometimes they seem banal (“improve grammar”) and without thought, and sometimes they are more meaningful. But we revisit them once at semester and once at the end, and many find some progress in even banal goals (“I’m better at commas now”). Even if they’re not using goals the way I do — and I use personal goals all the time — at the very least they see what they’ve learned. Often, if you ask a kid what he has learned, he’ll say, “Nothing,” which isn’t true, but he may really think that. Using goals can help a student see the learning taking place.

    Now, being able to recite goals in lock-step — sounds like a waste of time to me. Once again, balance.

  7. “…able to recite goals”

    Can’t most kids make up something on the spot?

    Like: “My goal today is to avoid A** H**** like you asking me about my goals. Looks like I failed today”

  8. The problem with this exercise — and if problems like this were gold, we’d retire the national debt — is that it takes the germ of a good idea (goals focus learning) and reduces it a task that may or may not be relevant to the learner with concommitant enforcement mechanisms. The “goal” then becomes the goal setting itself, rather than the educational benefit supposedly represented by the process. Call it bulletin board syndrome: A supervisor notices that good things are happening in classrooms with great bulletin board displays, and somehow that turns into “all classrooms must have great bulletin boards. Why? Because that’s what “they” are looking for during walkarounds.

    So instead of making good things happen in the classroom, we concern ourselves with the visible indicators of the good things — the bulletin boards, small groups, accountable talk, the learning aim and standard on the board, etc.

    It would be comical if it did not come with a real price tag attached.

  9. I think that having students make up and articulate goals for normal classes is a waste of time…if the goals are relevant at all, they will likely be banal. (Which is not to say that they are unrealistic – most of my goals were simply something like “learn what the teacher teaches and get a good grade.”

    But I do think that having teachers describe specific concrete goals for the class is useful – something like:

    I Unit 1 – Fractions
    A. What is a fraction?
    B. Pies and fractions.
    C. Parts of a fraction.
    D. Common denominator.
    E. Adding fractions.
    F. Canceling out.
    G. Multiplying fractions.
    H. Dividing fractions.
    I. Fractions and decimals.
    J. Converting fractions to decimals.
    K. Converting decimals to fractions.
    L. Pies and fractions, part II.
    M. Review.

    (I am not a math teacher…).

    I think that something like this, with more detail, would be helpful for the student, informative for the student’s parent, and maybe even helpful educationally.

  10. these tools are highly effective when woven into the culture and operations. The goals reinforce the culture and operations. That’s true in schools and business.

    When ladled atop disfunctional culture and operations, they just dissipate energy further (whether a school or business setting)

  11. As a third grade teacher, I’m just imagining trying to assist my 27 students in establishing goals in every subject. Do kids with IEPs get to use their IEP goals as their own goals, or do they need to put the goals in their own language? Do the goals have to be aligned with the curriculum? For example, can one student write, “I will learn long division” when long division isn’t taught in third grade. If so, will I then have to start teaching long division?

    In a classroom, there are certainly times when goal setting is appropriate. But as a forced activity in each subject, the goal setting becomes meaningless, another bureaucratic nightmare for teacher and students.

  12. Mike Curtis says:

    Looks like they’re playing stupid again; and they’re winning. In a teachers’ workshop years ago, we were tasked to set up a 3-year plan with annual stepping stones as goals. Additionally, we had to develop rubriks with which to measure our achievements as educators.

    My response: “My goal is to have no goals. I’m already there, so I’ll leave it to you to develop a rubrik to measure my descent from doing the best I can.”

    I’m still successfully teaching by doing the best I can.

  13. BadaBing says:

    Mike Curtis:

    We’re on the same wave-length, and I know that might be scary for you, but what you said in response to the idiots in charge was perfect. If I say that my goal is to have no goals, do I have goals or am I declaring that I have no goals. Sincerely, though, in a teachers’ workshop, which I avoid like swine flu, only the sane would have no goals. Now I’m getting into Catch-22. Better quit while I have no goals.

  14. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Right, but you guys really do have goals, yes? They may not be ed-ease type goals, but things like figure out a better way to teach x, or revise this unit so it leads more smoothly to the next..??

  15. Diana Senechal says:


    It is not Authority I distrust, but Jargon-Ridden Authority.

    Diana Senechal

  16. Hi Margo/Mom,

    I understand and appreciate your perspective. In my own professional life I practice setting concrete goals daily in light of a continually refined sense of mission and vision.

    I’ve also had the practical experience of successfully mentoring internationally award winning science, math and engineering students. I met them individually on a biweekly basis to monitor their progress on their research goals. Goal setting is undoubtedly a powerful practice.

    On the other hand, I had less than a dozen students in a special class authentic science research class. I couldn’t imagine being required to do the same kind of mentoring with 90-120 students, which is not unusual for a typical NYC teaching load.

    So what can appears to be a powerful idea on paper, can be practically impossible to implement in the real world.

    All the best,