Lofty Goal Setting – Not Quite The Methodology of Success For Those With Strong Morals And Integrity

During my past visit to Kenya, I happened upon a copy of  Business Daily from 5 March 2009 while waiting somewhere. I began to thumb through the paper and caught an article about corporate targets/goals.  What was most interesting about the article was it took on some of the flaws in NCLB.

‘The ‘No Child Left Behind’ idea is compelling – after all, who wants to leave a child behind?  Schweitzer says, ‘But the reality of this program is that it is fundamentally flawed.  It is very difficult to monitor education, and this program narrows the focus of teachers in a domain that requires cooperation, innovation, broad thinking, high ethical standards and, we would hope, intrinsic motivation.’

This particular passage was enthralling as I was trying to formulate in my mind what might be a reasonable time line and reasonable development goals for the school I was interested in teaching at in Kenya.  I was discussing this piece with my friend and asked if I could keep the paper (I believe it was hers to begin with).

I read the article, made notes, nodded my head in the ah- ha, I agree nod and apparently put the article aside. This week while I was reading Angelo’s Ashes in The New Yorker, 29 June 2009,  I was also packing for my trip to Kenya. Inside one of my bags was the aforementioned article. Bells went off……it was indeed the ah-ha.

The cogent points which Schweitzer noted in the brief Business Daily piece were delivered with a smack down, item by item, in the figurative disemboweling of Angelo Mozilo (Countrywide Financial) as written by Connie Bruck.    Angelo was the perfect case example.

I went back and re-read the Schweitzer article as  have been organizing my thoughts regarding my new job – what is appropriate goal setting? Who should set the goals….should they be easily attainable and celebration worthy in the short-term and then ratchet up or should they be deep goals from the get go and hard-won?   Since the goals were not to benefit my ego or to make money, how did I want to approach them so there could be buy in from all stake holders and yet not too easy as to be unworthy of the wonderful people I would be dealing with.  How to strike a reasonable balance has been my mantra as I have lived through the escapades created by others who could not understand the unreasonableness of lofty goals.

As Schweitzer points out in the article ‘Corporate targets can lead to disaster with goals gone wild’ ,

….ambitious goal setting has become endemic in American business practice and scholarship over the last half-century.  Goals have pervaded industries as diverse as automotive repair, banking and information systems, even spilling over to the debate on how to improve America’s public schools.

my sense of being overwhelmed by the Sisyphean task at the charter school I worked for was not just a strong imagination (frankly, I have never considered myself creative enough for elaborate imagination), it was genuinely being overwhelmed and  the goal setting had some negative and disastrous consequences left in its wake.  (NB: My parents and friends all told I was not being unreasonable at the time, however, I thought they were saying it to make me feel better and get through the terribly difficult situation-it never occurred to me no one could tread the waters at my school).

While I understand how Angelo Mozilo’s ego got in his way and that of his sales force, I have not been able to understand how my principal and the CEO of the charter school organization I worked for, both supposed learned men with years of experience, fell into the lofty and unreasonable miasma of setting lofty goals.  Along the way they set up teachers to (1) have a narrow focus (essentially what Schweitzer calls sacrificing safety for speed) in achieving test score results, (2)created unrealistic time horizons which created substantial health (emotional and physical) problems for school employees, never mind students, (3) made schools, in essence principals and then teachers, set  highly specific and ambitious targets which resulted in staff being willing to engage in risky learning practices to meet the goals (the least of which was teaching to the test), (4) unethical behavior – finding and exploiting ways of  denying students who should have had special ed services the right to said services by figuring out ways for ‘those’ students/parents to opt out of standardized testing.

Schweitzer states that this over zealous goal setting I noted above is a form of creating a hedonic treadmill:

In fact, the authors argue that this failure to recognize the value of simply doing a good job can cause managers to instead set goals and rewards that harm intrinsic motivation and place employees on a “hedonic treadmill.”  The notion of a hedonic treadmill, says Scheweitzer, “is that people never ‘get’ to where they are going. For example, people constantly pursue happiness, but don’t get there.

When I reflect back on my time working for a charter school, I am thankful my principal and CEO were not able to inspire anything in me resembling David Sambol (Countrywide Financial, Sales Manager extraordinaire) and I had the good sense (and support of family and friends) to walk away.  It is only now through reading what others have written that I see the errors of my own short-lived magical thinking – meeting the lofty test score goals would surely provide my students with an excellent education and know, deep in my core, I was right to understand IT WAS NEVER ABOUT THE TEST SCORES.

A final comment by Schweitzer at the end of the article:

‘Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for students of management, experts need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision,’ the authors write.

‘Given the sway of goal setting on intellectual pursuits in management, we call for a more self-critical and less self-congratulatory approach to the study of goal setting.’

And so, with this in mind, I am making lists for discussion and revision of what will be goals worthy of pursuing at my new job and what goals may need to be tier II, sit in the background a bit longer and what goals may be worth festering over, but not in the immediate near future.  I want the goals for the teachers I work with, and our students, to be not only achievable, but something where the process is part and parcel of the overall practice of education.