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Goal monitoring: A crucial lever to achieve school improvement

Linda Bendikson, Frauke Meyer, and Deidre Le Fevre
Abstract: 

School goal setting is often described as a key leadership practice for school improvement. Important for the effectiveness of goal setting is the close monitoring of progress. This article examines goal-monitoring practices in three schools that were seen as being effective and contributing to improvement. The findings highlight the importance of choosing fit-for-purpose tools, such as embedding monitoring in roles, routines, and structures, and strengthening the focus on supporting teachers in developing practice. While teachers and middle leaders initially seemed to experience a push towards accountability, the improvement in results and the focus on developing practice appeared to create a sense of collective responsibility in the longer term.

Journal issue: 

Goal monitoring

A crucial lever to achieve school improvement

LINDA BENDIKSON, FRAUKE MEYER, AND DEIDRE LE FEVRE

Key points

Three principals inquired into improving school outcomes through school-wide goal setting in a collaborative research project.

Key to their success was closely monitoring progress towards their goals at school, department, team, classroom, and individual student level.

Four strategies supported effective goal monitoring and improvement: a) enabling a strong focus on data and using fit-for-purpose tools; b) embedding monitoring in roles, routines, and structures; c) focusing on support and development of teachers; and d) tracking target learners.

School goal setting is often described as a key leadership practice for school improvement. Important for the effectiveness of goal setting is the close monitoring of progress. This article examines goal-monitoring practices in three schools that were seen as being effective and contributing to improvement. The findings highlight the importance of choosing fit-for-purpose tools, such as embedding monitoring in roles, routines, and structures, and strengthening the focus on supporting teachers in developing practice. While teachers and middle leaders initially seemed to experience a push towards accountability, the improvement in results and the focus on developing practice appeared to create a sense of collective responsibility in the longer term.

Introduction

Goal setting has been shown to be an important leadership behaviour that has a significant, albeit indirect, impact on student achievement and school improvement (Leithwood et al., 2004; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008; Sun & Leithwood, 2015). Principals, mostly in collaboration with their staff, set improvement goals for their schools as part of annual and strategic planning processes and in response to reform initiatives (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu 2015; DuFour & Mattos, 2013). In New Zealand, schools are legally required to provide an annual plan in which they outline school-wide goals, achievement targets, and strategies they will use to achieve them. Effective goal setting is characterised by creating a few specific and clear goals. However, research has shown that New Zealand principals often set either too many or unspecific goals and thus, struggle to keep a sustained focus on their goals over the course of the year (Bendikson et al., in press).

Research on school improvement and on goal-setting theory has shown that close monitoring and regular feedback on progress in relation to the goals and targets has been shown to be one of the most important features of effective goal pursuit (Fullan, 2016, Latham & Locke, 2006; Locke & Latham, 1990, 2019). Feedback allows staff to gauge progress towards the goals and targets, adapt their strategies, and adjust their level of effort (Locke & Latham, 1990, 2019). Feedback also highlights areas where support is needed. Here, a focus on development is important so that teachers can move away from feeling blamed and having to justify poor results, and instead concentrate on adjusting teaching strategies (Timperley, 2005). Furthermore, seeing progress being made towards the goal creates a sense of accomplishment and can result in heightened effort and an ongoing desire to keep making improvements (Murphy, 2013). This article examines how three principals implement such monitoring and feedback mechanisms in their schools to support their schools’ pursuits of improvement and equity in student outcomes.

Background

This research is part of a larger Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) project on Leading Effective Goal-setting to Improve School Outcomes which involved three principals, their schools, and three researchers from Auckland University. The principals were in their second or third year in their schools, and all schools required significant shifts in student outcomes for specific groups of learners. The project involved one primary and two secondary schools. The primary school, School B, had a large number of students with special learning needs. The school was situated in a high socioeconomic area catering for approximately 450 students. The two secondary schools catered for large numbers of Pasifika and Māori students from low socioeconomic areas. School A catered for approximately 1400 students, with a quarter identifying as Māori and almost half as Pasifika. School C catered for approximately 700 students, with 80% identifying as Pasifika and 15% as Māori.

The project documented and supported the efforts of the principals and their staff over the course of 2 years. The research question guiding the main project was: How can principals lead goal setting effectively to improve equity in student outcomes? The researchers undertook staff and principal interviews and observations at the beginning of the study and provided schools with an overview of the nature of goal-setting practices in the schools. Principals then used a practitioner-inquiry approach (Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014) to address the constraints identified in their schools and improve their goal-setting and school-improvement efforts accordingly. Schools were supported by the researchers through observations of and feedback on school meetings, during in-school sessions aiding the schools’ problem-solving, and at regular workshops.

There were seven half-day workshops in total that focused on reflection, problem-solving, and planning next steps. School improvement research indicates that a cohesive team effort from senior and middle leaders is required if measurable progress in schools is to be made (Bryk et al., 2015; Hofman, Hofman, & Guldemond, 2001). Hence, we asked principals to bring one or more middle or senior leaders to the workshops. Furthermore, we asked them to bring a teacher to the workshops to provide a different perspective on the inquiry. The project teams from each school, comprising between three and six staff members, remained consistent across the 2 years. Workshops involved all three schools and thus enabled within and across-school discussion, support, and feedback.

The project collected various sources of data over the 2 years. For this article, we draw on interview data, workshop artefacts, and notes from observations. We interviewed each principal for an hour at the beginning, middle, and end of the project. We also interviewed five staff, including senior and middle leaders and teachers, at each school at the beginning and end of the project for half an hour. We further collected notes on school-meeting observations and audio-recordings of workshop discussions. Audio-recordings were transcribed for analysis. While there are several key aspects to effective goal setting, this article focuses and elaborates on only one of these aspects: goal monitoring, which proved to be one of the strongest levers for school improvement.

Goal monitoring as a core practice for school improvement

Goal monitoring refers to tracking progress and providing feedback on the progress made to those involved in pursuing the goal. Four key strategies were evident that if, in place, ensured effective goal monitoring and progress towards their goals: a) enabling a strong focus on data and using fit-for-purpose tools; b) embedding monitoring in roles, routines, and structures; c) focusing on target learners; and d) focusing on support and development of teachers. We outline below how the schools put these strategies into practice.

Data use and fit-for-purpose tools

All three principals brought a stronger focus on using data to their schools. An initial priority for principals was to collect data not only on student achievement but also on other aspects, for example, lateness, absences, and student voice on wellbeing, teaching, and learning. Staff noted the change in culture around data, and some commented on their engagement with it.

What has changed … it has made me more aware of the power of data to inform us, and I treat data in the wider sense of the word not just numbers. (Teacher, School A)

The “push” for data meant that assessments had to be completed and data had to be put into the system in time. The focus on data served the purpose of monitoring achievement and progress, and enabled teams to discern where and how changes needed to be made. As one principal commented:

I think you have to have a relentless focus on it. I think also having really good data to track and monitor and then be able to say how can we support, you know, putting the support in, not just saying well we will just do everything the same and get a different outcome. Actually, saying what do we need to do differently? (Principal, School A)

The greatest shared understanding of direction could be seen when everyone used data at all levels of the school, and when it was analysed at different levels, and for different student groups, not only at the school level. One of the teachers from School A described the ongoing engagement of staff with data on different levels.

Every meeting—the faculty board, the dean’s meetings—it is all around data, data, data. Constant data coming out, deans wanting to know what is going on. We are being regularly reminded as to what are we doing within our faculty. How do we know what is happening? How do we know where particular students [are that] we have identified with concerns? (Teacher, School A)

Principals focused on establishing coherent processes across the school and on enabling all staff, especially middle leaders, to access and analyse data. To enable easy access and analysis of data, all principals changed the school’s data-management system to one that they saw as a better fit-for-purpose.

Everyone talks about [the new SMS], but it is a tool and I suppose it is the tool that has enabled everyone to be able to get data. (Principal, School A)

I think with [the new SMS] you just have everything there. The system is much more accessible for teachers. (Teacher, School C)

For the secondary schools, the data-management system made it easier to see where students were at, at any given point, and to monitor achievement against their goals. School C’s goal was to have every student in every course achieve 14-plus credits, and the principal’s comment below describes the ease of tracking the goal given how the tool allowed for access and transparency.

We are getting better at monitoring achievement through the year and matching that against our target and [the new SMS] really helps us with that because you can really clearly see what percentage of kids in each course have got their 14 credits now at this stage of the year or which ones are on 11, 12, 13 [and] just got one more standard to go or which ones are on 7, 8, 9 and need two more standards. (Principal, School C)

Besides a new data-management system, the primary school also introduced tracking templates that were shared on Google Docs. They created an easy-to-read overview of the school’s data that enabled tracking of all students and unpacking of the data in school meetings.

We did have a lot of [data] as the year went on. Seeing that we were putting the data in a lot of different places probably caused a little bit of frustration, but … we did unpack it in our staff meetings and we [now] have a template that tracks it from Term 1, Term 2, Term 3, Term 4 that management have access to … We get the data from last year and we put it in for Term 4 and then for “above”, “at”, “below” and then … we highlight the Māori and Pasifika and then we track them for all kids. (Teacher, School B)

The shared analysis of data in the school seemed to contribute to a feeling of collective responsibility for students and their achievements, as one teacher commented.

I think again because you can see it in staff meetings when the data is being shared with the whole school, you can see across the whole school, but you are also interested in other year levels, which I don’t think was before. I think everyone was, like, “Oh this is my class. These are my children, my class” … where it certainly has, it seems, [enhanced] that interest across the whole school. Yeah, definitely we are all accountable for all the children and the children are accountable as well for their learning. (Teacher, School B)

It seemed building staff capability in working with data and enabling access and transparency was important groundwork for these schools to engage in monitoring goal achievement.

Roles, routines, and structures

As a next step, principals focused on embedding goal monitoring into roles, structures, and routines to ensure regular and tight tracking of progress. In terms of roles, people were in charge of tracking progress on different levels, for example, in the high schools, tutor teachers monitored students in their tutor classes reporting to deans; deans examined year-level data reporting to the senior leadership team (SLT); head of faculty looked at student data within their subjects. All leaders were not only reporting up but also working with their teachers to implement changes. In the primary school, the SLT analysed results for priority learners, numeracy, and literacy, and passed it on to team leaders who examined the data for their year groups. They were not only in charge of tracking progress but also of following up with teachers on strategies in place to support target students and reporting back to the SLT.

Data were shared and discussed in regular meetings—team meetings, faculty meetings, deans’ meetings, and meetings between middle leaders and the SLT. Meeting agendas were explicitly structured around data with the focus in meetings being on the discussion of analysed data rather than just the sharing of data. The emphasis seemed to be on identifying what happened for different groups of students or individual students and what could or needed to be done differently.

How are they monitored? So, deans’ meeting fortnightly and our middle leaders’ meetings monthly and then within departments. Then through SLT/HOD [head of department] meetings, so bringing up the department data with the head of department, questioning around what is going on with the department and expecting that to follow on through to the department. (Principal, School C)

I think the relationship between SLT and heads of faculty, I mean I hate line-management as a concept but that relationship, I think, has given greater importance than it has in the past. I do think that the heads of faculty by and large come to those meetings better equipped. They tend to be able to sit down and open up her book and go “Level 1 [subject] is at ..., Level 2 [subject] is at ..., Level 3 is at ..., we are worried about these [students], here is the tracking sheet ... and what we are going to do is have a collapsed timetable day” and there is a plan all the time. (Middle leader, School A)

There was an expectation that middle leaders would carry this inquiring stance forward into their department and team meetings with teachers, and teachers reported on this level of accountability.

Individual teachers going through their stuff on [the new SMS] and if somebody wasn’t on track to get 14 credits, you have got to comment as to why. (Teacher, School A)

We did quite a bit in our team meetings of how what we are doing in our classroom and how we are meeting the needs of these students. (Teacher, School B)

The data discussions in meetings created not only transparency, but also accountability for those in charge and, with that, a different engagement with data. Data were not analysed and shared by the SLT, but those in charge had to engage with the data and analyse it for discussion at the meeting. One of the middle leaders from School A and an SLT member from School B noted this heightened feeling of accountability.

So, there has been that and as I say [this] has just been from faculty to SLT. I meet regularly with [the deputy principal] and update her on what is happening in [subject] and then she updates [the principal]. So, there has just been that accountability model, I would call it. (Middle leader, School A)

The team-leader roles have changed quite significantly this year. The meetings have moved away from the housekeeping, you know, who is doing what this week, into tracking [student achievement] and we are introducing more and more things, putting it down to team level that might have been a staff meeting before. (Teacher, School B)

It also meant that results were monitored on a regular basis, not only two or three times a year, meaning actions for improvement could be taken early on, not just the following year after the end of year results were known. As the following middle leader pointed out, through changing systems and structures the school worked towards achieving the goals rather than checking at the end of the year whether they were achieved or not.

The goals actually became something we had to work towards. We had always set goals previously, particularly NCEA achievement goals, but it felt like they were set at the beginning of the year, looked at the following year—oh yes we made it, no we didn’t, oh what a pity. Whereas right from the moment those goals were set everything was focused on what we needed to do to ensure that we were meeting the goals. So, changing systems, changing the way the school was structured and all that led into much, much better monitoring of student achievement. (Middle leader, School A)

A focus on target learners

Schools’ goal monitoring included a strong focus on target students—those students at risk of not achieving or those not achieving to their potential. Their achievement was again monitored at different levels of the schools, as the following teacher from School A and an SLT member from School B noted.

The deans are more aware, the HOFs [heads of faculty] are more aware, the teachers are more aware, and I think that is pushing priority learners to be more successful. (Teacher, School A)

Regular check-ins, so data was collected again each term and looked at and discussed, but it was also [that] the names of those target children were there at every team meeting and often at staff meetings and at senior leadership meetings. So that momentum was there all the way along ... and not just the data ... because that is part of the picture, but also the backstory and that side of it as well. (SLT member, School B)

The SLT member from School B quoted above highlighted that the school’s inquiry was into the root causes of the apparent underachievement of these students. There were aligned inquiries both on a school and department or team level. For example, one school noted patterns in students taking more courses than needed for achieving university entrance, but in doing so, they were spreading themselves too thin and not achieving enough credits in some of the courses. As a result, the school produced information material for students on choosing courses and made teachers who supported students in their decision-making aware of the issue. In School C, such inquiries informed the work of teachers’ professional learning groups (PLGs).

We did PLG groups around [the goal]. So, each of our goals we then said: how are we going to get there? So how are we going to get 14 credits? We looked at the data. So, data tracking and data monitoring, better reporting on the data and then we talked about teacher-adaptive teaching so that you would adapt your teaching to who is in front of you rather than have the same course. You would look at what students were in front of you and adapt day-to-day, week-to-week the programme, whatever, to who was in front of you and what they needed. (Teacher, School C)

These inquiries also led to collaboration across departments as the following quote from a middle leader in School A exemplifies.

I think by doing that, we become more aware of where we need to work on. Where is the differentiation in teaching, how do we fill that gap, and why is this student a priority? So today, for example, because it is in [subject], my colleague put one of the students as priority in [subject], but the same student in [other subject] was not [a priority student]. So, it could simply be how the students might be more of a writer in [other subject] and chemistry is more mathematics, so it could just be that. So, it helps us we think on our strategy on how we teach. (Middle leader, School A)

The strongest focus on target students, however, was at the middle leader level in department and team meetings with teachers. Here, the focus was on individual students in teachers’ classrooms and what teachers could do differently to improve student outcomes. Again, this created a strong sense of accountability for teachers and a changed role for middle leaders who were pushed to address issues in teacher practice.

... at team meetings each week one or two teachers will share what they are doing with their target learners in writing with everybody else, and then there will be some kind of discussion around if they need help, you know, what is working and have they thought about trying this, that or another thing, and that is all recorded and that has actually been really successful. (Teacher, School B)

I think the accountability, you know, because accountability in some way, you know, your turn is going to come so you have to front up with something and we encourage them to bring the books as well so there is actually the evidence is there. (Senior Leader, School B)

You know most of them can access some data but up until quite recently, using data to challenge teaching and learning in classrooms has not been part of the HOF [Head of Faculty] discourse at all. I mean when I was HOF, it was never an issue. If there was a teacher that was underperforming, I would go in there I would be bored ... but now it is very much about the fact that things aren’t right in this classroom, and here is a springboard to have a conversation. (Senior Leader, School A)

A focus on development and support

A strong focus on accountability can run the risk of either teachers feeling judged and blamed for low results or students not achieving. The principal from School B described this feeling as experienced by one of her teachers and noted her school’s focus on development and support of teachers to inquire into the problem as a school and then to change practice and/or provide support.

It was an interesting discussion actually, [about] target writing students, one of the teachers said, because we have got a big shared document that we track over the year. She said “... but it looks like mine haven’t moved or two of mine haven’t moved, but I have tried all of this and nothing has happened.” So we had a big talk about that—we are not here to judge what you are doing, [but] that it is a flag for us that we might need to get that child assessed or have a look at something else because all the things haven’t worked. It is not your data, it is our data, it is not a beating stick. So, we have had lots of conversations around the purpose of the data; it is not to beat people around the head but actually find out what is going on. (Principal, School B)

Positive outcomes from goal setting and monitoring were seen in these schools where accountability existed, but with a focus on support and development of teachers. Middle leaders and teachers started to see the analysis of data and the sharing of practice as an opportunity to learn from and to support one another.

I guess the culture has changed that it is no longer seen as compliance. Most teachers will see it as something helpful, you know, like it helps the person who is sharing, but it also helps others because they all think, “Oh, maybe I could try that.” (Teacher, School B)

Yeah because the roll is not that big, so we are able to share the priority students and what they need to achieve. So being a dean at any level you are able to say, “Okay, are you able to share with us some strategies that you used for this particular student and calculated in a way all of that student’s teachers can be aware of maybe it is this or that?” The sharing of student engagement is readily available. Teachers are very open. ... we encourage that teachers are sharing their best practice and what they are doing in their classrooms. (Teacher, School C)

A focus on support and development was not only important for teachers in meetings about data, target students, and teaching practice but also from senior leaders for middle leaders who felt more responsibility in their roles, as one middle leader from School A commented.

I think our relationship in terms of SLT and faculty is so important in terms of supporting us in our roles and we come in to, you know, we learn relationships are different and have another set of eyes and another perspective; it is really important to do it. (Middle leader, School A)

Conclusion and implications

Although our findings are based on a small sample of three schools, and generalisations should hence be made with caution, they confirm previous school-improvement research and goal-setting theory (Fullan, 2016, Latham & Locke, 2006; Locke & Latham, 2019). This article, however, further provides an in-depth look at how schools implement goal monitoring and alludes to school practices that supported tight and regular monitoring with a view to improving teacher practice. Our findings highlight the importance of choosing fit-for-purpose tools, embedding monitoring in roles, routines, and structures, and strengthening the focus on supporting teachers in developing practice to support target learners. First, the right data-management tools enabled teachers and leaders to access, analyse, and share data. Secondly, it was clear what people’s roles were in terms of analysing data and monitoring achievement. The monitoring was tightly embedded in meetings that focused on the discussion of data and how to address any issues identified. Thirdly, similar to Timperley’s (2005) emphasis on the adjustment of teaching strategies, a strong focus was on support of teachers in their development of teaching practice to support target learners. Overall, these practices created a sense of transparency and collective responsibility for results. While this accountability seemed pushed onto middle leaders and teachers at first, the improvement in results and the focus on developing practice seemed to create a shared responsibility for results in the longer term.

Acknowledgments

Thank you to the reviewers for providing valuable feedback on this article. Thank you also to the principals and schools involved in this project and the TLRI funding which supported this study as part of the larger TLRI project Leading Effective Goal-setting to Improve School Outcomes.

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Linda Bendikson has been working as an independent schooling improvement consultant since 2019. Previous roles include being leader of The University of Auckland’s Centre for Educational Leadership, a Ministry of Education regional manager, and a primary school principal. Her research focuses on goal theory, schooling improvement, and principal leadership in secondary schools.

Email: l.bendikson@gmail.com

Frauke Meyer is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. Her research is concerned with school leadership, leadership induction/mentoring, and interpersonal leadership practices. The immediate focus of her research is the analysis, assessment, and development of leadership practices that foster school improvement and interpersonal behaviours that promote relational trust.

Deidre Le Fevre is an associate professor and head of graduate studies in educational leadership in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. She brings knowledge and skills in understanding organisational change, the development of professional learning, and effective leadership practices to her teaching, research and consulting work in early childhood centres, schools, and other organisations.