I just opened an email from a colleague asking me if I could help her find an article she needed for her work with local district administrators across the state. She was looking for The Singular Power of One Goal (Sparks, 1999) to encourage superintendents and principals to consider the importance of establishing a focused school improvement plan. After locating the article in my files and sending it off, I poured a cup of coffee and re-read this familiar work. The article, featuring an interview with Emily Calhoun, is just as current today as it was twelve years ago, and the message is more important than ever.
Dr.Calhoun is a national expert and author who supports schools, districts and state agencies in designing and implementing school reforms that focus on instruction, curriculum and assessment. In this publication, Emily reminds readers of the importance of setting goals sharply focused on student learning. She contends that one powerful student learning goal is sufficient for a school staff to work on. Having too many goals makes it difficult for educators to work collectively to study teaching practices and results. Focusing on one powerful goal enables teams of teachers to engage in highly focused professional learning, dig into the external knowledge base, thoroughly examine student data, and to carefully study the implementation of strategies identified by the faculty.
One of the most important concepts put forward by Emily in the interview is called “seeing through and beyond,” which is a process of identifying all the changes that will be required to accomplish the goal by looking through the goal to the student performances that are expected. The next step is to determine what teacher behaviors in curriculum, instruction, and assessment are needed to promote the desired student behaviors. Continuing the process, the faculty must see right through the teacher behaviors to what the principal and central office need to do. Seeing through and beyond enables program implementers to make better use of data, to design comprehensive staff development, to employ technical assistance and leadership, and to make critical decisions about the effective use of time and resources. A singular goal helps the faculty to focus and to push through to address the things that everyone must be working on to fully accomplish the goal. Of course, limiting the focus of a school’s improvement plan to a single goal is not easily done and achieving the goal is not that simple, and Dr. Calhoun comments on the many barriers and challenges.
When the article came out twelve years ago, districts were struggling to comply with NCLB and having difficulty managing the expectations to meet student achievement goals in multiple subject areas at the same time. Today, districts are still struggling to figure out how to design reforms that accomplish everything that is expected of them, with even fewer resources. The concept of seeing through and beyond is intriguing to think about in our current context.
Schools are being expected to adjust to newly revised student learning standards, modify curriculum, improve formative assessment processes, add more summative assessments, apply new technologies for both classroom and organizational purposes, implement new data management stems, engage parents more fully, respond to revised teaching standards, add new teacher and leader evaluation procedures, deliver intensive professional development, reform hiring and retention practices …and the list goes on.
How might applying the idea of “seeing through and beyond” to policy development change this picture? What if school leaders and policy makers started the policy making process by considering how the policy would enable districts and schools to focus on fewer priorities rather than adding more. Just as school leaders should look through the learning goal and the desired student performance to consider all the actions needed at various levels of the system, policy makers need to see beyond the specific actions and immediate consequences of the policies and reforms they are promulgating. Are there protocols that could help leaders to think about how their policies affect student learning and how they change the behaviors of teachers, principals, central office staff, and other role groups at all levels of the system? Is there a way to consider whether the policies are likely to lead to systemic changes that yield improved practices in instruction and assessment with enough fidelity to the design of the innovation and with enough teaches to make a difference? Reforms where innovations are done incorrectly or partially by many teachers or reforms that are fully implemented by only a small percentage of the teachers responsible for instruction are not going to yield the intended outcomes.
There are processes available to help planners to see through and beyond the policy goal. The new field of implementation science offers strategies for increasing fidelity and ways of accomplishing full scale replication across a large system. The work of Dean Fixsen and the National Implementation Network give policy makers and practitioners a way to intentionally explore and adopt the innovation, consider the various organizational complexities and the context that contributes to the success or failure of an implementation, and address both expected and unexpected barriers to putting a reform in place. Attending to the factors of implementation early in the planning process by using implementation science would give reformers tools they need to increase the likely hood that the policies they advance will make a difference.
In her article from over a decade ago, Emily advised that it takes both leadership and willpower to face the challenges of school reform. It will take leadership to intentionally use today’s implementation science and other processes to “see through and beyond”. It will take will power to narrow the focus of reforms, to selectively abandon projects and reforms that aren’t working, to eliminate barriers to reforms that are likely to accomplish goals of improved teaching and learning and to target actions to the ultimate goal – student learning.
Sparks, D.(1999). The singular power of one goal: Action researcher narrows focus to broaden effectiveness. JSD, Winter, 54-58. Retrieved from http://www.learningforward.org/news/jsd/calhoun201.cfm
Image from Flickr user: Kristin Mckee