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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Great Commitment, Wrong Target

An article in Fast Company, a monthly business magazine, attracted my interest a few years back. The author, Marshall Goldsmith, wrote a brief essay about goal obsession in the August 2004 edition. He discussed a 1973 study conducted at Princeton by researchers Darley and Batson.

 In this widely referenced study, a group of theology students was told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan. As part of the research, some of these students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. Along their route across campus, Darley and Batson had hired an actor to play the role of a victim who was coughing and suffering.

Ninety percent of the “late” students in Princeton Theology Seminary ignored the needs of the suffering person in their haste to get across campus. As the study reports, ‘Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!’

Goldsmith concluded that this was a case of people with goal obsession clouding their judgment. They were well intentioned but committed to the wrong target. I imagine that school improvement is not wanting for either energy and effort. Most schools charge forth with good intentions – but end up shooting at the wrong target. I am worried that the spate of federal and state legislation passed to shape the form and direction of education is narrowing the view of public schools. Add in the enticing financial incentives (i.e the federally sponsored competitive grants available to states through "Race To The Top.") during a time of economic crisis and scarce resources, and you have the potential for a perfect storm that begins with a thick fog enveloping schools and obstructing their vision.

There is no right way to do the wrong thing. The fact that 90% of the theology students who were told they were late simply neglected the person in need along the path to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals the dangers of a goal orientation bordering on fixation. The current attention and demands on state mandated tests and scores threaten to distort priorities and produce a myopic view. Sir George Pickering, English clinical researcher and professor of medicine, once declared, "Not everything that counts, can be counted; not everything that can be counted, counts." That's an important piece of advice for schools to heed as they develop strategic goals that promote success.

When you think of education, what really counts?    

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