Should we be less Smart on targets?

23rd November 2018 at 00:00
Research has shown that the practice of setting performance targets for staff that are ‘specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based’ can be detrimental in some professions. Is teaching one of them? Zofia Niemtus finds out

If you’ve had – or conducted – a performance review recently, you will almost certainly have walked out of that meeting clutching a list of targets. And it is very likely that those targets will have been “Smart” (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based). The Smart approach to target-setting is one that has been adopted as best practice by organisations in a variety of sectors – and it’s an approach that’s backed by science.

Gary Latham, secretary of state professor of organisational effectiveness at the University of Toronto, says that there are “approximately 1,000 studies conducted in laboratory and field settings in countries such as Australia, Canada, England, Japan, South Africa and the US that attest to the positive effect Smart goals have on job performance”.

But, according to a recent research report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, that may not be the case when it comes to tasks such as teaching. It cites several studies showing that, when the work in question is not straightforward, such goals can be counterproductive, offering too narrow a focus.

This is not exactly news to those in education. Ben Newmark, a vice-principal of a secondary school in the Midlands, says the Smart-target appraisal system is “a mess”. “You can’t possibly set Smart targets for a job as complex as teaching,” he says.

“Teachers have to do everything, all the time; there isn’t the option of ignoring certain parts of the job. Would a teacher not do playground duty because it’s not an appraisal target? Or not take the register because they’re focused on their target of pupil premium boys?”

It’s a symptom of the “quasi-business language” that has taken hold in schools, he continues, linked to the idea that teaching can be reduced to an “outcomes-oriented game”.


Seduced by Smart targets

Rachel Lofthouse, a professor of teacher education in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University, agrees. She posits that education was perhaps seduced by Smart targets as “a way to define ourselves as professionals” but that the process has ended up “measuring a very small slice of what actually happens”.

“The achievability of Smart targets is questionable anyway because there are so many dimensions to consider,” she continues. “The system individualises a teacher’s work and creates the myth that a teacher has the ability to individually enable those students to achieve, as if it is a simple one-to-one transaction.

“That’s not to say that individual teachers can’t make a huge difference. But if you’re a geography teacher and your target is around the number of students achieving their target grades, it’s implied that the achievement will be disconnected to all the other aspects of their education, when it also depends on how well they have understood maths, literacy, science and so on.”

Lofthouse praises the work of a few schools she has seen recently, where they are taking a more holistic view of performance management. Instead of assessing individuals, she explains, they bring together “meaningful teams of teachers and ask what difference they will collectively make”. That means shared targets and goals, with staff supporting each other to achieve them, recognising that “it isn’t about the one hero teacher”.

In practice, this means a more narrative-based approach to appraisals, she continues. “You begin talking about the way your classes interact with each other and with you, then identifying key elements of that narrative and what you would like them to be. Then you come back later in the year and see if things have changed.”

Sydenham High School in south London has also introduced a new approach to appraisals. Claire Boyd, head of the preparatory school there, explains that last year, the leadership team conducted a staff survey and found that teachers felt that there was “very little benefit or value from performance management”, and that it was “a line management process rather than something they owned and had the space to consider”.


‘Professionally damaged’

So the school set about creating a new way of working, undergoing a “cathartic” consultation process, which revealed, Boyd says, that “people can be really damaged professionally by [Smart] targets”.

The outcome of the consultation was a system of “dialogues rather than directives”, with all staff receiving training in coaching conversations. Where previous targets had been linked to exam results, or measurables such as the number of events hosted, staff are now “empowered to pick targets that interest them and spark passion”, but which might be less easily measured, Boyd explains. These have varied from improving questioning and the use of success criteria, to getting outside for lessons more often.

But for schools considering such a move, there’s still the thorny issue of performance-related pay, and how to assess it when data has been replaced by discussion. Latham says this needn’t be an issue. He states that targets linked to pay should always be linked to development rather than outcomes anyway, to avoid creating perverse incentives.

“Monetary incentives are a two-edged sword,” he says. “They can have a dramatic positive effect on performance, and they can also provide a powerful temptation to cheat. At a minimum, the monetary incentive system should reward goal progress rather than all-or-nothing goal attainment.”

Boyd explains that, under her school’s new system, they still have procedures to fall back on if there’s an issue of individual underperformance. But on the whole, she continues, they have increased trust between staff and leadership, and created a much more positive relationship to target-setting.

“It’s not perfect,” she says. “It does take more time to gather evidence and we still have a long way to go, but it’s much more integrated. And it’s far more exciting to create a culture where you’re developing professionals, rather than people who are just completing actions.”

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

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