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Administration & Leadership

The Value of Limiting Your Priorities for the School Year

These guiding questions will help school leaders focus on what really matters for their staff and students this year.

September 10, 2021
Teachers meet in classroom and have discussion
Allison Shelley / American Education

The word that comes to mind when thinking about the 2020–21 school year is scattered. School leaders, staff, and families had to constantly pivot and respond to the most significant health crisis in a century. Now we need the upcoming year to be focused, and the way to achieve this is by outlining a few key priorities and being relentless about sticking to them.

It’s particularly challenging to choose priorities in the field of education because schools are bombarded by so many initiatives. When you have too many priorities, you get less done. To summarize what the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution write:

  • With two to three priorities, you will likely achieve them all with excellence.
  • With four to 10 priorities, you will likely achieve only one or two with excellence.
  • With 10 or more priorities, you will be unlikely to achieve any with excellence.

Think of Steve Jobs and Apple. According to the story, when Jobs ran Apple, he would take 100 employees away to brainstorm priorities for the company. They would work together to choose 10 priorities. Then—and some people saw this as ruthless—Jobs would slash the bottom seven projects and say that no Apple money or time would be dedicated to those seven and that the company would focus only on the top three.

So, if you aim to choose no more than three main priorities for the upcoming school year, how do you choose them? Below are five questions to guide you in this decision—a process best done as a team.

Guiding Questions for Goal-Setting

1. How much of an impact on student learning and well-being will this priority have? It’s not that some priorities are bad, it’s just that some will have a comparatively larger impact. This means it helps to know the research on what affects student learning and well-being more.

For example, John Hattie’s research shows that collective teacher efficacy, student collaboration, and Response to Intervention (RTI) produce more than two years of learning in just one year. Further, there is agreement among researchers that the following have a larger impact on student achievement: formative assessment, professional collaboration, feedback, a clear curriculum, and high-impact teaching strategies (such as nonfiction writing).

2. Can this priority make an impact within three months? People need small wins now more than ever. Consider choosing three priorities just for the first three months and then reassess. If you don’t believe much can be done in three months, Douglas Reeves and Robert Eaker found in their research that schools have been able to do the following in that time frame: reduce failure rate by 90 percent, lower chronic absenteeism by 80 percent, reduce suspensions by 50 percent, and significantly improve staff morale. For each potential priority ask, is this something your school can impact within three months?

3. Does this priority address our most pressing needs? Spend some time gathering data so you can identify the most pressing needs of your school. Go beyond typical standardized test data (which may be particularly inaccurate due to the pandemic). Instead, examine the three types of data that Shane Safir introduces in The Listening Leader and further fleshes out in her recent book with Jamila Dugan, Street Data:

  • Level 1 “satellite” data, like test scores, attendance, and course passage
  • Level 2 “map” data, like reading levels and algebra readiness scores
  • Level 3 “street” data, such as stories, that you gather through listening and observing

Once you’ve gathered data from surveys, focus groups, one-on-ones, assessment results, and more, determine which of your potential priorities will best address the gaps in the data.

4. Does this priority build on our existing initiatives, strengths, or school values? Sometimes a new initiative or change feels overwhelming because it doesn’t seem connected to the school’s existing initiatives, mission, or strengths. The path to success is often faster and easier when it’s built on what you already do well. Examine the data you uncovered, and see what strengths your school already has. Lots of schools found successful new approaches during the pandemic that they want to build on. Use this question to choose priorities that most align with your school’s strengths.

5. How much will this priority influence other aspects of the school? In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes what’s called a “keystone habit”—one habit that has the power to influence a range of other habits. That’s to say, sometimes one habit simply matters more than others.

In a school, this means that rather than focusing on improving every little thing, we should focus on a few key priorities—or keystone habits—that will serve as catalysts to change the rest of the school. For example, if you chose to focus on absenteeism as one of your priorities, that would impact engagement (students can’t be engaged if they’re not attending), learning (they can’t learn if they’re missing classes), and staff morale (teachers question their worth when students don’t show up).

This year, everyone will feel less fragmented and more inspired to work together if you can point them in the direction of a few focused priorities.

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