To grasp the stars

October 12, 2006 2 Comments »

Any teacher knows that school boards sometimes make bizarre decisions. Policies are handed down from people who, if they were ever in a classroom, it’s been a while. Anyway, my district has decided that, in addition to SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based), we will implement “stretch” goals. Stretch goals are “objectives which are seemingly unobtainable with present resources. By specifying ‘unattainable’, people are required to ‘think outside the box’ are able to improve performance by a magnitude they never thought possible.”
Our stretch goal is:

All students will be achieving at [above average levels] in either reading and/or mathematics literacy.

Now in addition to the obvious mathematical impossibility and the glaring grammatical error, the purpose of these types of goals makes no sense. The term stretch goal is from Jack Welsh at GE. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Stretch goals are used, not to drive short-term action, but to inspire longer term innovation processes aimed at making desirable outcomes, that are currently impossible, achievable at some future time. While it might be hoped to achieve a stretch goal either in large measure or in full within a defined time frame (usually quite some time into the future) the timing of the achievement of the stretch goal cannot be guaranteed – it can only be striven for.
  2. If a person, organization or society wishes to achieve a major change it is helpful to use stretch goals in combination with SMART goals.
  3. Stretch goals do not have to be expressed in all or nothing terms, but there is a strong argument for pushing a stretch goal as far as possible in a desirable direction because this creates the maximum scope for the application of creativity. The basic formula might be to drive a negative condition to a zero level (eliminate the negative) or to drive a desirable state to 100% achievement level (attain the positive).
  4. Stretch goals [sic]
    • allows for better education for students generally
    • takes a global view
    • provides focus for:
      1. curriculum implementation
      2. assessment practices
      3. resource allocation
      4. staff development

Now, I’m sure these work dandy in a company such as GE where materials and innovation are changing constantly – you set a goal to have a 0% failure rate in your LCDs (fr’instance), and as technology improves, you begin to achieve the goal. In education, this isn’t going to work. For one, our materials never change (unless someone sneaks in and replaces all my 15 and 16 year-olds with college grads). For another, we’re dealing with people, not products… setting a stretch goal of 100% of students achieving above average results (mathematical impossibility aside) is like setting a goal of zero traffic fatalities – there are always circumstances beyond our control which conspire to foil this goal.

Please understand that I am not saying we shouldn’t strive for excellence for every learner (which just happens to be our district motto), but if the goal is unattainable, and is likely to remain unattainable, what’s the point? My stretch goal may as well be, “I will use my prodigious mental powers to save time in the classroom by telekinetically moving textbooks to students’ desks.” Just as impossible to meet, but more fun to plan for. Actually, that’s more of a SMART-ass goal…

* Bonus points to anyone who recognizes the title of the post.

Related Posts


  1. Benjy October 12, 2006 at 6:49 pm -

    I think that while stretch goals might be nice, they will also cause a lot of people to give up. Someone who’s aware of their own limits, or simply doesn’t like to reach them, will never be motivated to reach an “impossible” goal.

  2. Jeremy October 14, 2006 at 2:20 pm -

    Good stuff Ian. Stretch goals are fine unless they require humans to be something they cannot be.

    With all sincerity, perhaps you should get a masters degree and teach education, or get elected to your local school board (is that even allowed?). You have well thought out views, and are very good at making the case for them. I’d say get involved in politics, but you wouldn’t fit: square peg in round hole and all that.