Our Perspectives - Dr Linda Bendikson

The UACEL Perspectives are opinion pieces that highlight current and topical educational leadership matters. Linda Bendikson writes candidly about her views and offers a fresh perspective on today’s educational leadership challenges.  Occasionally, other faculty / team members contribute to this Newsletter is published four times a year.

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Looking to the future

The Centre for Educational Leadership – looking to the future

Yes – we will be here next year! Our name and branding may change, but our work will go on. In a recent letter to schools, Mark Barrow, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland informed principals that Team Solutions will no longer be offering centrally funded PLD. This announcement may have led to some of you to assume that the university will cease support for all centrally funded PLD - this is not the case.  Leadership PLD will still be available to all schools through our office. We look forward to continuing to support leadership teams across New Zealand in 2019 and beyond, both through MOE funded PLD and our courses.

Goal setting and annual planning – a mindset or a compliance exercise?
There are less than ten weeks to go in the academic year.  This is the time to double down and make sure you are getting the results you desired, and if you abided by the conditions of effective goal setting you should have made good progress.  But at the same time, you must put your mind to where you are going next year whilst dealing with all the end-of-year pressures.  It’s a tough time of year so here are some tips on making planning for next year both manageable and successful. 
 
By and large schools are very good at being compliant in their planning processes.  They set goals (e.g., improve reading comprehension) and SMART* targets (e.g., improve the number of students working at or above their expected age-based level from 50% to 75%) for student achievement and submit plans on time.  But, our experience from both research and day-to-day work in schools, suggests that many plans add little value, and rarely help school leaders to maintain focus.  This is because too often, goal setting is a compliance activity – leaders must plan, so they plan, leaders must set goals, so they set goals – usually lots of them.
 
If you want the goal-setting and planning process to add value, there are some key things to remember. The first is that goals and plans are really about motivating teams.  Quality plans are more than simply changing the date on last year’s plan and putting it on the shelf (or sending it to the Ministry).  A good plan is focused on only one or two things that are the most critical to work on as a school team.  You can have the basis of next year’s plan with only a couple of hours of analysing, thinking and talking. 
 
If goals are to be motivational, people must a) agree that what they are working on is the right thing and b) that the current situation is not good enough.   It is most important that the leaders (senior and middle) are committed because they lead the teachers.  If they are not committed and focused, you cannot expect your teachers to be.
 
So, step one in good goal setting and planning is getting the team together, analysing the data from past years for high level patterns and deciding on one or two priority academic learning areas to focus on (an hour’s work/discussion if the data is in front of you).
 
Step two is analysing with your team why this area of learning is most problematic; what is causing you to get poor results for a significant group of your students (and within your power to change), and therefore what it is you should be doing differently to improve results radically.  This may only be another hour’s work.  There are numerous tools that can help you do this, but what I would emphasise here is that ‘being strategic’ implies that this is not about ‘business-as-usual’.  Your plan should not be recording generic things like ‘set up observations’.  You will do those things anyway.  Your plan should record what you intend to do differently.  Actions that make a difference are not generic; they are very pointed and specific to the exact problem you are trying to solve.  What is the problem with comprehension?  Is it that vocabulary is poor or that there has been too little teacher-emphasis on understanding the meaning of stories?  What is the problem with NCEA results?  Is it that too many students have not had their progress rigorously monitored?  Your purposeful actions to improve outcomes need to be tailored to these exact causes of the problem you are focused on.  
 
Step three is deciding how you will know you are measuring improvement on that goal in the short-term.  This is where most teams begin to fall short.  Goals are about motivation, so you have to get feedback on how you are going against your target very regularly to motivate your team to put the extra effort in that is required for success.  That feedback is required at least once a term and more often when learning steps are smaller.  For instance, in the reading comprehension example above, junior class teachers would probably want to be monitoring book levels every three weeks or so, while senior classes might find once a term adequate.  Even for high schools tracking credits in NCEA, starting early is essential and tracking very regularly is critical if you are to get the results you want. 
 
I suggest producing a tight plan for the first one or two terms and then reviewing and changing it as the year progresses in response to the data on student progress.  The focus is on controlling and measuring a few key work processes that influence end results.  It is consistency of practice that will make the difference if the focus of the changes is in the right place. 
 
Step four is about setting an exact target for progress.  There is not room here to go into the different ways of doing this but there is no ‘one right way’.  The main thing is BE AMBITIOUS. If your results suggest you have been getting around about the same level of success for years in your given focus area, it is no good aiming for more of the same.  You will achieve that without trying.  Basically, the higher the goal, the higher the achievement so long as certain conditions are met, and those conditions have been covered in this short piece to some extent (clarity of goal, capacity to focus on it and commitment to it so you put the energy into it).
 
Step five happens all year; you have to provide the space for teachers to focus on the goals.  You cannot hold people accountable for getting improvement if they don’t have time to concentrate on it or if they do not know how to improve.  Setting a goal is not magic.  Do the work in the meetings – do not talk about the work related to the goal. Use your staff meetings and team meetings to focus on your results and to help each other to improve them. 
 
It is also most critical that you motivate your team by reporting back on their success or lack of success in getting early results in these meetings.  If they get early results (or quick wins as they are sometimes called), people are motivated to put more effort in, and if they don’t get early improvement, people are motivated to try something different, to get the desired results.  Feedback is an essential part of goal setting and annual planning.  It is no good waiting till the end of year and then checking; too often, that approach ends in tears.
 
So, in short, annual plans should be very tight and short documents that record quality thinking about a focus area and the likely strategies you need to apply to correct the situation (based on the likely causes of the problem).  There should be one or two student-focused targets only that your whole staff will collectively concentrate on.  Many of the other things you need to do or learn as adults sit under these goals.  Other areas where you need to improve as a school (e.g., personnel; health and safety etc) can be listed briefly – you do not need a big plan around them just a reminder to do them.  A list of bullet points will suffice. 
 
Effective goal setting and planning is more ‘mind set’ than paper work.  You will not make progress unless you have the courage to narrow your collective focus and put energy into one or two key student-centred goals and monitor progress closely during the year.  As Tony Bryk has said, “’Small wins’ gradually build a school community’s capacity for the greater challenges..that may lie ahead” (p. 28).  When you put that focus on a problem area and give people the space to work on it, it is exciting to see the progress you can make, and you are motivated to do it again with another problem.
 
To view a three-minute video of goal setting visit YouTube or to download and utilise our planning template, visit our website page.  If you would value further help, we offer an annual planning workshop every year at the end of Term 3 – check it out next year and do your work in the meeting with us! 
 
*SMART = Specific, Measurable; Achievable (but challenging); Relevant and Time-bound.

References: 
Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review, May
Bryk, A. S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement. Kappan, 91(7), 23-30.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.




Linda Bendikson
Direction, UACEL
 l.bendikson@auckland.ac.nz

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References

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.
Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.



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