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There’s Power in Targets!

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

By Loretta Blanks, Executive Director School Turnaround

It’s interesting how targets have changed over my 70 years as a student, teacher, administrator and School Turnaround leader. I remember when I was in fourth grade that my much-loved teacher, arranged us in rows by our test score averages. The big race in the classroom was between Sally and Barry…they seesawed first desk all year. I think I made it to third desk but was never able or even believed I was able, to get in first or second desk and at some point, realized that “target” was probably too high for me, at least with Sally and Barry in the mix! I guess that system was a target for a few…making it to the number 1 desk…but not for most of the others in the class. This “target” increased learning and motivation for only some in the class and probably resulted in other students feeling hopelessly stuck.

For most of my years as a teacher, the districts I taught in administered the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). During the years I administered the IOWA and received results for my students, I do no recall one time that the results were used to inform instruction. I never saw anyone attempt to set school, teacher or student targets using the IOWA data. Nor did I ever see students involved in conferences that helped them understand their levels, what a target for improvement could be, and what they needed to do to reach that target. Data was collected but not used to increase achievement.

As a principal I struggled with moving a low performing school. Fumbled with finding how to make it happen, but, lucky me, I had a wonderful teacher who understood the state formula and the importance of students understanding where they were academically and where they needed to be. We began setting targets and the results were outstanding. Took me a few years to get there, but the struggle was worth it. Just wish it hadn’t taken 3 years!

Then, I became a part of the Rensselaerville Institute School Turnaround Team and the why and how of targets went from my muddy struggle to a clear process.

The Why

Increased Achievement

Experience is clear: people with targets outperform those who pledge best efforts to do better. Tne reason is that with the best-efforts approach, we tend to hallow the activity (e.g., certain instructional practices) and let the results vary (too bad test scores did not go up, but we know this was valuable nonetheless). With targets, one sticks to the results and takes permission to change the activity. It’s no surprise that achievement increases in schools where students set targets.


Students are highly motivated to follow through on learning objectives when there is a clear target for success. I’ve been in schools on days when a benchmark is given. In these schools, where students have set targets, it’s not unusual for the principal and me to be stopped by a student who proudly announces to us that they hit their target. Nothing motivates success more than hitting a target that they own. A target that’s not based on the performance of any other student. The only person they are competing with is themselves, not a Sally or a Barry.

The How

Students’ summative data is necessary for student target setting. Usually, student results from the state end-of year assessment are used. However, there are some schools that use other summative assessments for target setting. Remember, the target is set (should not change) and you measure progress using benchmarks throughout the year.

Schedule target setting conferences with students using a “all hands on deck” approach with staff members. The target setting template should include student summative data from the end of the previous year, the target for the current year, and space to add benchmark scores throughout the year. In addition to discussing the student’s data and target, the template and conversation should also include:

  • Standards to work on

  • What can you/will you change to hit your target?

  • What support do you need from your teacher or other staff members?

  • How can your family or friends help you hit your target?

It’s important that the student and staff member conducting the conference sign the plan. It’s even better if a parent/guardian also sign.

I’ve heard it said, “Setting goals (targets) is the first step in turning the invisible to the visible.” So many students feel like I did as the fourth grader in the third seat, “I can never make it, I don’t know how”. Instead, with supported target setting students: Believe in themselves; Believe they can hit their targets; Believe they are strong, and nothing can hold them back. Target setting empowers!

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