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.