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Friday, April 8, 2016

Keeping Your Eyes on the Target

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

Keep An Eye On The Target

     It’s essential that you maintain a realistic target as you fashion your goals. Peters and Austin, in Passion for Excellence, advocate the following by quoting a subject in their study: “We don’t seek to be 100% better at any one thing. Instead, we seek to be 1% better at 100 different things.” (Peters and Austin, p. 59)

     As a former athlete and coach I have too often witnessed a team on the short end of the score attempt to overcome a deficit that exceeds the point total of any one play (behind by more than a touchdown in football, a grand slam in baseball, a three pointer in basketball,…). That is, the team tries to do everything at once. Basketball is a good example. There is a tendency to immediately revert to the higher risk/higher point shots from beyond the three point arc. Assuming that it is not a situation where only seconds remain on the clock, it is best that the team pursue high percentage shots and chip away at the margin two points at a time rather than anxiously throw up low percentage three pointers.

     Statistics bear this out. Most professional teams average nearly a 50 percent success rate with two point attempts versus a 33 percent completion rate for three pointers. In addition to the mathematics that show the advantage of the two point attempts over the course of ten or more possessions, there is another significant difference – there are more fouls committed on shots taken closer to the basket than shots taken from beyond the three point arc. The resulting foul shots produce another benefit for point accumulation.

     The best fit between effort and success results from tight, but not constricting, alignment between your mission and your goals. It is therefore, imperative that you invest high quality energy and effort in creating the right mission because all else rests upon it, like the foundation supporting your dream house.

     Exercise care to avoid pursuing goals with the tunnel vision that obscures or ignores significant and unexpected internal and/or external change in policy, politics, and finances. I remember the day that John F. Kennedy was shot. My elementary school teacher continued to follow her predetermined lesson while we all sat in our chairs beneath an umbrella of fear, anxiety, and confusion, regarding the fate of the president. Though she may have had misgivings about talking of death and assassination to fourth graders, it would have helped to at least acknowledge the subject instead of acting as if nothing had happened.

     Finally, the best advice I can offer for developing goals, and life in general, is embedded in a quote from Charles Garfield’s Peak Performers. “Make sure that when you climb hard to the top of the ladder that you are leaning against the right wall.” (Garfield, p. 138)

Thoughts on Goals

     Don’t presume that the school’s goals must necessarily evolve out of the state’s goals. That is, performance on state mandated tests, with results published on the state education department’s web site and splashed across the headlines of local newspapers for consumption by parents and taxpayers, should not be allowed to abduct the direction and purpose of individual schools. Despite the high stakes nature of state-wide tests and the proclivity of mainstream media to report the scores and compares schools, you don’t have to acquiesce and make improved test scores the primary goal of the school. Note I said primary goal of the school.

     Intuitively, one may assume that test preparation, item analysis, prescriptive remediation, increased instructional time, extended day or extended year calendars, and a multitude of other responses to perceived deficiencies, would produce increased achievement. While these interventions may very well work, there are additional strategies and investments that could improve test performance in less direct methods. For example, targeting improvement through instruction alone, without respect to the impact of the organizational culture on learners and staff, empowerment of staff and parents, and alignment of vision and mission with data and goals, could undermine the instructional efforts previously cited in this paragraph.  

     It’s akin to getting the cart before the horse. I believe that there are schools in which the principal (or the superintendent) have been guilty of responding to test scores with a knee-jerk reaction that promotes a “longer, harder” approach to increasing performance on tests at the expense of neglecting the intricate and dynamic interactions of the organizational culture and other elements of schooling that are dismissed or discounted as mere intangibles.

     The authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, refer to this as “representative heuristic” and propose an example by way of a simple and quick quiz. Ask someone whether more people around the globe lose their lives through fire or drowning? Most people pick fire as the cause because the resulting catastrophic stories attract more attention in the news. Since we see stories and film on fires in the news more often than we see articles and photos on people drowning, we assume that sample size as our source of information. More people perish in floods than fires, but, as the authors point out, “we apply a simple mental heuristic, fall victim to an inaccurate data stream, and rarely do we know that it’s happening.” (Patterson, et al, p. 232)

     It requires an almost counter-intuitive leap of faith to overcome fears of negative press and advance progress in significant aspects of the school that are not directly involved in test preparation. Who ever said that leadership was safe and easy anyway?

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