Goal Standard

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2009

Run, don’t walk, over to Joanne Jacobs where the talented Diana Senechal is guest-blogging for Joanne between now and May 29.  Diana, a teacher at a Core Knowledge school in NYC, has been a frequent contributor here on the Core Knowledge Blog and one of the more original and thoughtful classroom observers in the edusphere wherever her comments appear.

Check out her thoughts about why failure is important, and today’s  post on goal-setting for students.  Apparently, New York City schools now require every student to have explicit, written learning goals in every subject–and to show or recite them on demand. 

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) rather than the subject matter and the learning of it.

“A goal can be vital or banal,” Diana concludes.  “Mandating it (and setting the language for it) tips it in the direction of banality.”

This is a classic example of my First Law of Bad Education Practice, which holds there is not a single good idea in education that doesn’t become a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.  Diana nails the reason why this is ironclad law: once the focus is on documentation (Student goals? Check!) it’s all about the To Do list.  The first, immediate casualty is whatever made the idea powerful in the first place.


  1. Thank you, Robert! And props for yet another brilliant post title. “Goal Standard” had a familiar ring to it, but I somehow didn’t get it until yesterday afternoon. Then it dawned on me like a golden sun (which by then was setting).

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 22, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  2. Robert,

    Thanks for the link, and today’s links also. (no thanks for reminding me of the great blog exchanges I’d like to be contributing to, despite my end of year exhaustion.)

    Regarding Diana’s great posts, her posts on goal setting is just as profound as the post on failure, but I’m just taking the time to respond to that one.

    Gosh, it wasn’t that long ago that we were all told that humans do not move on to the next level of understanding until our old understanding wasn’t successful. Sure, we now know that that first generation science was primitive, but metaphorically there is still plenty of truth.

    Lynn Canady says that “excessive failure” is not constructive and I agree. I also support his efforts to keep failure (represented by 0s) from causing excessive harm. But Canady knows that failure is an essential part of learning and seeks to institutionalize ways for adults to intervene quickly to help kids build on failure and not be destroyed by it

    In the inner city, I think we are paralyzed by the following. Our students have suffered so much failure, and have had relatively so little positive adult support, that schools are afraid to introduce more failure. So, we try one experiment after another to remove responsibility from the students’ shoulders. If learning for mastery takes 10,000 deliberate practices, and homes and schools are too chaotic for that to be a possibility, we week the fools gold of some quick fix to “accelerate the learning process.”

    Here’s my metaphor. Being a teen has always been like walking a tight rope. But now we are losing too many kids, so we can’t think of anything better than to loosen things up.

    But which is harder, crossing a tight or a loose tightrope?

    Comment by john thompson — May 22, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  3. Robert,

    Love that “First Law” — can’t wait to refer to that at an IEP meeting!

    This ties in nicely to your post on the service requirement concept, our (well, my and enough others’) recent dismissal of which completely shocked a number of School Board members. How the heck can you oppose Service? they ask. I don’t, but I oppose the mandating of it — and the thoroughly oxymoronic idea of awarding a credit for it. “But if we can’t make it mandatory, how can we be sure it gets done?” they ask. (Translation: let’s make it easy to administer, regardless of whether it works when so pinned to a dissecting tray.) Say goodbye to intrinsic motivation, I reply, if everything has to be tallied and rewarded.

    I like a loose end now and then.

    I’m enjoying your blog (and posts like Diana’s, to which you refer) quite a bit. It takes a lot of deep thinking about education, principles, and psychology to get past the demagoguery associated with a glittering generality like “Service” or “Goal Setting.” Without a yea or nay to his policies, I do love to see the example being set by the president when he develops nuanced arguments that have conditional statements embedded in them. I appreciate it whenever I see that the sound-bite/model that has so overwhelmed our quantification-drunk culture gets a reality check. Let’s step back to appreciate that there is sometimes relatively irreducible complexity (or rather, complexity that should not be oversimplified, lest it lose its potency). Maybe a portfolio is better than a standardized test, even if it’s harder to assess.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — May 24, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

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