I need to write this to get it out of my system, despite the fact that I have a mountain of tasks that need to be accomplished before Monday. A major portion of my task list revolves around IEP goals and objectives.
One of the amazing things I discovered when I wrote my blog post back in 2006* about IEP goals and objectives (which later became published as part of a collection of articles in book form) was the level of concern parents have about this topic. As teachers, we have to write them and are supposed to be tracking them, because it is the law and best practice. However it always seemed parents were more anxious to talk about placement rather than spend much time on goals and objectives. However that article continues to be the most read post I have ever published, getting almost 28,000 hits out of 350,000 all-time views, plus it is read at the TPGTA website as well as many liking and reading it in the book. The message is clear: parents are intensely interested in this topic. Therefore, we owe it to them as well as to ourselves as teachers to get it right.
To their credit, the folks I am currently working with have revised their goals and objectives to be much better and pretty much follow the guidelines that I set up in that article. They are actually the best goals I have ever seen written as a an entire school. They get it…sort of.
As I started looking at my caseload and preparing to track the goals, the shortcomings of the 80% criteria mastery became more and more glaring and disturbed me more and more. While the goals were better written and more measurable, it was going to be an absolutely oppressive task to decipher, measure and track all of these goals for literally hundreds of students. We need to do better.
Somewhere along the line, 80% became this mysteriously magical number. To be sure, it is better than 60, 70 or even 75%. But in real life, our tolerance for 80% is low to negligible.
What if your employer offered to pay you 80% of your agreed salary 80% of the time? Would you accept that?
What if your car only started 80% of the time? Would that be acceptable?
What if 1 out of every 5 planes crashed while taking off?
Do you feed your children 80% of the time?
Do you think the government is going to accept you paying your taxes 80% of the time?
Which appliances do you want to perform on demand 80% of the time?
In which store would you shop at where you have an 80% chance that the merchandise you bought will be what is inside the box?
The 80% criteria is the criterion of mediocrity. There ARE times when it may be appropriate but they are few and far between for most busy special education teachers. Even moreso for parents who might be responsible for tracking some of these things.
Here is a goal I saw today (Name changed, but I think it might have actually been an example for how to write a goal):
“ Given instruction Wilma will increase her words per minute (WPM) to 100 by the end of the school year” The criteria was 80%
That was the objective, and it is pretty straight forward. It fits the SMART definition: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited. But there are still niggling problems.
Is she already reading 80 WPM? Is she going to read 100 words and miss 20% of them? Increasing reading rate is certainly a worthwhile goal. And if reading 100 WPM is worthwhile, why are we satisfied with 80% ? Why not 100%?
And this is where I have gotten LOT of resistance from colleagues, present and past. “100 PERCENT! OMG! **I** don’t do anything 100% of the time or with 100 percent accuracy! I would hate for anyone to expect me to be perfect 100% of the time!”
It is true that we are flawed human beings and prone to error. But when we take a plane, we expect to arrive at the correct terminal 100% of the time and have our luggage arrive at the same place 100% of the time. If it does not happen the way it is supposed to, we get mighty cranky and demand that things be fixed and made right.
While our students are as flawed as any of us, the assumption is that they are somehow more badly broken. Only a broken toaster would perform at 80%. Only a broken car would start 80% of the time. Only if we think a thing is broken and we have no intention of fixing it do we accept 80% as a criteria for performance. We need to change our thinking.
If the child is reading 80 WPM, and our goal is to get them reading at 100 WPM, then that needs to be the goal. And the criteria needs to be 100%. They either read 100 words correctly in a minute or they don’t. However, when we write the goals, we need to set proper conditions:
“Given one trial per day, Wilma will read 100 WPM for 3 consecutive days.” Criteria = 100%
Is Wilma expected to be perfect all the time? No. But given the deliberate and planned nature of a trial, I am pretty confident of her mastery if she can be perfect 3 times in a row. THAT, my friends, is a much better picture of true mastery. Yes, there will be the occasional plane crash, but most of the time, thankfully, things go exactly as planned. Sure, there are delays but the main goal is arriving at the destination. And even with how common delays are, we are not necessarily happy when they occur. So should it be with our goals and objectives.
While my thinking on goals is evolving, let’s try another goal:
“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work over 4 of 5 opportunities”
This goal is way better than most goals on the subject of handing in homework. Again, it is SMART. At least it does not have the onerous 80%, right?
Welll…it is actually not-so-cleverly couched within that criteria. It is a major improvement over “Handing in his homework on time with 80% accuracy” but it still has some brokenness and failure built into it. Why did we say 4 of 5? Why not just 5? Will Fred be capable of handing in 5 assignments over 5 opportunities this year or not? If he is, then why do we settle for 4? If he is not, then why are we making ourselves track 5 data points that he will never hit? Again, we need to strive for consistency in performance that indicates mastery. If we want him to turn in 4 assignments in a row over 4 days, then that should be the goal. And the expectation is that he will be able to hit 4 days in a row without a miss. “4 of 5” is actually like saying “3 in a row” because there is no possible way to hit 4 of 5 with being able to hit at least 3 consecutive times. It’s mathematically impossible. If you miss once, you are out after the second miss. This is why I often will truncate my objectives and do 3 consecutive trials with 100%.
So: Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work, on time, 3 consecutive times” Criteria = 100%
Now this is a behavoral issue. Fred is a smart guy, and he will master this objective in the very first week as it is written, You grade his first 3 worksheets and they are turned in on time but they are all blank! Or he rushes through them and scores a 50. THIS is where the 80% can come into play:
“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work on time 3 times in a row scoring 80% or better. Criteria = 100%” If Fred has academic problems we might say 70%, but we are making sure he actually passes the work he turns in. He does not have to be perfect in the academics, but he DOES have to demonstrate mastery on the behavioral part. If he misses just once, we reset the clock, give some additional support, and try again. We can track academics in a separate goal.
“Trials” v “Opportunities”
Our students have many, many opportunities to read, write and complete tasks, but we are not going to track and measure each one. We are going to set specific conditions when we measure progress. This deliberate and planned setting of an antecedent gives rise to a trial, which demands a response or behavior. This is the most fundamental component of instruction. We give a cue, they respond and we give feedback in the form of comments, a grade or even a reward. We certainly want our kids to generalize across settings, and this should happen once the task is mastered. We plan to test and teach Wilma to read 100 WPM, and we want this to carry over to when she reads social studies or science. But she has to master the target under the best of conditions before we go into other areas. A trial optimizes those conditions. An “opportunity” simply looks more haphazard. Most teachers use “opportunities” when they mean “trials”. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. With the huge number of goals a teacher has to manage with a caseload of 26 students, we can not afford to be haphazard. And since someone else might end up tracking the objective or goal you are writing, it is simply more humane to make the goals as easily trackable as possible. We need to stop abusing our colleagues with poorly written goals that require a math degree and several hours to track.
Let me give one more reason to make our goals easier. They need to be understood by parents and the students. Unless you are prepared to make a graph, you need to shy away from partial and broken goals. Almost 90% of my students struggle with math, and parents and and special educators do not vary substantially from that. Otherwise we would all be math teachers! Everyone understands 100% mastery and know it when they see it. This is especially true for behavioral goals but is just as true for many academic goals. Stick with making the goals more simple and achievable. Almost any goal can be manipulated into a 100% mastery criteria. Any parent will be able to understand and know when it is achieved and so will most students. Many of my students are gamers and they have a better understanding of striving for mastery than many adults. They understand the concept of questing and mastering a series of objectives is a sort of quest. We set our kids on it and when they complete one quest, we give them a new, more challenging one. But if they don’t understand the quest or know when it is completed, they quickly lose interest in the game.
So when is 80% or its fractional equivalent (4 of 5 or 8 of 10) appropriate? When we are doing something where we are willing to make a graph and when we can track larger arrays during our trials. Math achievement is a good example, where there is an array of 10 or more problems. The larger the array of measured trials, the more a percentage is appropriate. In the case of math, each problem represents a trial. Some behavioral goals where you are using time sampling or event recording and have over 10 data points lend themselves to using a percentage or fraction of a large total. The larger the sample, the more appropriate it is to use a percentage. But in that case, you still need to think about your marriage to 80% mastery. Percentages lend themselves nicely to automated collection systems, like computer-graded tests. If a computer is not doing the collecting and scoring, you are making your life miserable by living within a percentage,
One more thing about goals: Less is more. I have some students with over 20 objectives. If I have a caseload of 25 students (it’s actually 26), that means I am trying to track over 500 separate pieces of data! I can be either complete or accurate, but it is inhumane to expect both. It is simply impractical to devote the attention that each goal requires if I have to manually enter, manage and track individual trials and then decide if we are at 80%. It’s far easier to look for “3 in a row” or however many and mark that quest as complete as we go. Especially if I can keep it down to 100 or less.
When potty training our children, our goal is 100% . Accidents can and do happen, but that is the exception not the rule. We start out wanting Freddy to be dry an entire day, then 2 days in a row. Not for 2 days at 80%. Two days. Period. Then 3 days and so on until his diaper is dry for an entire week. Every parent nows that at that point, he is “getting it.” Then we move up to pull-ups and eventually his “big boy underwear”. We support him at every stage, striving for more and better consistency. Are we demanding that little Freddy be perfect 100% of the time? No! But we are striving for consistency. I won’t buy from any eBay retailer with less than 97% positive ratings. Why do we settle for so much less for our kids?
For most goals, 80% is simply not consistent enough. When we disengage from mediocrity, it makes life easier and better for all of us. I’m not programming for mediocrity or failure, I want to program for success! And true success in most meaningful things requires a higher level of consistency than 80%.
*Note: Back in 2006, I was blogging pseudonymously under the name “Dick Dalton,” hence how I was addressed in many of the comments at that time.