Emma and the “outcome blinders”: How a hyper-focus on outcomes made us forget what matters
As a special education service provider, my colleagues and I spent a lot of time ensuring that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals we developed for our students were SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-based, and Time-bound. SMART goals are the gold standard of goal writing, they get clear about what we want a child’s outcome to be and allow us to measure with great specificity whether and at what level the child has reached the target.
While we were very well-intentioned, over time it became clear that the more specific and measurable our SMART goals became - the more we became focused on the metrics - the less we considered what actually mattered: the lived, daily experience of the student.
This was especially true with students who were struggling to make progress at a rate that aligned with the milestones we had outlined for them. My experience with a little girl named Emma made it clear how dangerous this outcomes and data focus could be.
Emma was one of my students for 4 years - from the time she entered preschool until she graduated from 1st grade – and she was one of the most joyful students I have ever worked with. Her smile would light up a room and her laugh would bellow through the halls. She loved people and games – especially playing Simon says or other copycat games – and her energy and joy were contagious. I would often schedule Emma at the end of my day so that I could leave on a positive note.
Emma was also profoundly impacted by her disability. She had no vocal language beyond a few consonant sounds, most of her cognitive abilities were within the 1st percentile, and her progress towards academic and social goals was exceedingly slow.
In the beginning, her developmental challenges didn’t stop Emma from loving school and making progress. She was happy to be around people, to play, swing on swings, and mold playdoh. She was most engaged with school and most successful academically and socially when she was in environments that allowed her to draw on her social strengths: her ability to cue into what other people in her environment were doing, use her peers as models, and seek positive feedback from adults.
But Emma wasn’t always meeting the SMART goals we wrote for her. We went back to the drawing board, did more assessments, added more service providers. We wrote more SMART goals and added them to her IEP. Now it seemed that her day wasn’t long enough, she couldn’t be a typical preschool student - with considerable unstructured play and circle time - and work on all these SMART goals. So, we added additional hours to her day.
After all the preschoolers went home, Emma stayed to work on her goals. It quickly became clear that Emma did not like this time of day. She would put her head down on her desk, mouth the materials, and hit the teacher. Even with this extra time, Emma wasn’t meeting all her goals. Rather than consider a change to the environment in which she was being asked to work, we stayed focused on outcomes. We got more precise about how her goals would be measured, more specific about the target skills we were after, and more focused on how we could get her there.
Soon, Emma was in first grade. We had a cubby installed in her first-grade special day classroom where she could work with a teacher one on one during the school day so that she could make progress on her SMART goals. There wasn’t time for Emma to go to music class or assemblies – the types of environments in which Emma could have built on her social strengths and practiced the capacities, beliefs, and character it takes to thrive. As time marched on, Emma expressed her frustration more strongly and we measured progress towards her outcomes more fiercely.
In hindsight, there were many facets of Emma’s SMART goals that she might have been able to learn in a setting that recognized her full humanity. Emma was working to build her communication repertoire, improve her fine and gross motor skills, and exhibit developmentally appropriate attention to school tasks. This girl who could light up a room with a smile and a laugh, engage in extended turn taking, and follow a peer model could have flourished in a school environment that allowed her to practice important developmental skills in a highly social and inclusive setting. But with Emma, we fundamentally missed the importance of designing daily experiences and environments in which she could flourish, build on her strengths, and practice the skills and capacities she was still developing. Instead, Emma’s daily, lived experience in school was deficit-based, isolated, and chronically stressful.
As she grew older, her capacities and character reflected the environment she was immersed in: her skill acquisition halted, and she displayed more anti-social behavior. We were so focused on outcomes, we forgot a single and powerful truth: who and how Emma practices being during the school day ultimately affects who she becomes. If we have student practice frustration, boredom, isolation, and immerse them in an environment that highlights their weaknesses - for instance, in Emma’s case, when we focus day after day entirely on her ability to “match upper and lower-case letters with 100% accuracy in 4 out of 5 opportunities” - then we should not be surprised when she disengages with school, becomes recalcitrant, and halts practicing activities that might lead to skill development.
If we want a child to be well and do well in the future, we need to provide an environment in which they can practice being well and doing well now.
For Emma, that meant having important conversations with her family about the kind of life her loved ones want for her and knowing Emma deeply in order to consider the kind of life she would want for herself. It is in this context, with a shared vision of a good childhood for Emma now and a good life for Emma in the future, that our expertise as educators can be used to maintain high expectations and identify evidence-based interventions to help her shine. I’m not talking about the kind of evidence that tells us how to raise a student’s standardized test scores – I’m talking about the kind of evidence that shows us how to design environments that help humans thrive. Because the key to our interventions lays not with precision measurement of a child’s progress towards acquisition of some goal, but with an environment with quality opportunities to practice being what we hope they will become. It is only by honing our understanding of what we want for Emma – autonomy, loving relationships, an ability to communicate her wants and needs – that we can ensure her daily experiences in school allow her to practice it.
Tye Ripma is Founding Catalyst at REENVISIONED. He has a background in special education program design, administration, and service delivery at the local level. He holds a credential in early childhood special education, is a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), and has a master’s degree in education policy from Stanford University. By day, Tye work in special education policy and practice, by night he thinks and writes about the ideas underlying REENVISIONED and supports the team wherever he can.
REENVISIONED is a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We believe schools should foster flourishing individuals and a thriving democratic society. But what does it mean to thrive or flourish?
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