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The Key to Improvement? Staying Focused on Goals

It's funny how sometimes we start out thinking our problem is one thing, then, when we dig deeper, we realize we're dealing with something else completely. One of the schools participating in the Learning School Alliance recently provided a great example of this concept.

One reason I enjoy participating in LSA is that I get to hear schools present problems of practice that their professional learning communities want to resolve. Each month a different school team outlines a challenge it is facing, then asks its fellow LSA community members to brainstorm solutions and find alternatives for addressing the challenge.

In October, one of our member schools, Santa Fe (N.M.) Indian School, presented a particularly interesting problem of practice. The school team has been focusing on designing and utilizing SMART goals to improve school culture and student outcomes. Specifically, they want to ensure that their SMART goals focus on preparing students to be critical thinkers, while at the same time ensuring that the students' native heritage is preserved. No small task.

Convinced that the school's improvement hinged on learning as much as possible about SMART goals, the school's leadership team launched an all-out effort to become steeped in SMART goal research, content, and practice. That was the easy part. Finding experts in the field, reading the literature, and understanding the theory behind SMART goals wasn't the real challenge. What the team is finding as it attempts to inculcate SMART goals throughout the school is that communication is really the larger issue.

The team is discovering that the key to any improvement effort is being able to stay focused on the goal, and that maintaining focus requires clear, consistent communication. Once the team understood that staying connected would be the key to making its SMART goal efforts effective, the problem of practice shifted.

The problem now became figuring out how to establish linkages amongst school groups. For example, they recognized that a communication loop between their 30-member leadership team and 200-member staff had to be strengthened. Second, they realized that within the staff they had smaller groups, formal and informal, that needed to be included in communication.

So it really isn't about getting smarter about SMART goals; it's about making smart decisions for connecting people to a goal through relevant, timely, and useful information sharing. Although the Santa Fe Indian School team had to shift its thinking about their problem of practice, that shift might prove to be the most important decision they'll make about their improvement efforts.

Carol V. Francois
Director of Learning, Learning Forward

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