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Thumbnail Image of Ilene M. Satchell.
Ilene M. Satchell, Ph.D.
General Education Curriculum Consultant and former Regional VP of Educational Services, Central Office Action Plan Coordinator, Administrator, and Teacher

Thumbnail Image of Sarah M. Kwilinski.
Sarah M. Kwilinski
Founder of Quill Professional Development and former Special Education teacher

What is Measurable? Part Two: Freedom from the Small Goals Mentality

This post is the third in my series on using the Common Core State Standards to write high-quality, measurable IEP Annual Goals and Short-Term Objectives.

The Third Question

Yes, but using the CCSS Strands or Domains to write the Annual Goals and Short-Term Objectives makes them so… (insert horrified expression) …BIG! I was taught that Objectives had to be SMALL in order to be measurable.

Ah, and now we have arrived at the real crux of the issue. This belief is so embedded in our methods we aren't even aware that it is a fallacy. Yet, saying that all Short-Term Objectives must be small in order to be measurable is as erroneous as saying that all farms have red barns. This practice is so institutionalized, though, that it is as hard to picture an IEP without small Objectives as it is to dismiss the image of the quaint red barns we saw in our early childhood readers.

So, let's journey back in time to understand the falsehood that has become part of the bedrock of special education culture. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became law in 1975, schools were suddenly charged with serving children who had not even been allowed inside their doors. And why hadn't these children been coming to school? It was because they looked and acted differently. Most of them had clear physical impairments which made people think of a hospital, or a "home", but not a school. And so, what model would the schools use to serve these children? A medical model.

Anyone who has spent time near a doctor recently has witnessed the minutia that is charted on every patient. I can't even get an earache looked at unless I submit my height, weight, blood pressure, temperature, history of allergies, and list of medications. If you've spent time in a hospital you have seen that this information is recorded not once but with great frequency because they intend to deliver an intense level of care for a short period of time.

How is a school not like a hospital? We don't serve our students for a short period of time. (I will grant that the job may be intense, though!) But, here is the point I am trying to make. A medical model of care records a great deal of data very frequently, and finds meaning in very small increments of change, because they are looking for patterns of change over a very short time frame. An educational model of care has a far longer time frame (years instead of hours) in which to observe a slow and steady pattern of growth and learning. Summary: while small goals are appropriate for short time frames, larger goals are required for longer time frames.

So, we see that special education's small goal mindset is based on a medical model. If this model doesn't really fit education why did it become an established practice back then? Two reasons. First, in the early days of special education, when only the most obviously impaired students were being served, there were smaller caseloads. If a teacher only served three to five children she had time to do a lot of data entry. Second, expectations were much lower. Parents were thrilled that their children were even in school; most did not expect their children to cover the breadth of content students are exposed to nowadays.

Look at all of these factors together. Early special education practices established that growth was marked in little increments, for a few students in a room at the end of the hallway completely separated from general education content, who were given relatively low expectations for growth. Can you see how these factors would lead to very small goals with even smaller short-term objectives?

We are now more than 35 years from PL 94-142 and the advent of IDEA. Nearly every factor of special education has changed from its early days. Teachers have larger caseloads. Students aiming for a diploma have extremely high expectations placed upon them. With inclusion practices teachers do not have the contact time they once had with their students. None of these factors support a multitude of small goals.

So, why are we still being taught to write our Goals/Objectives as small as possible? In the last few decades a modern day factor has come into play. Enter the lawsuit and the lawyer. Any school district that has been sued for failing to comply with an IEP has a lawyer telling its teachers to be sure that everything they put into an IEP is documented thoroughly, and often.  But, do teachers have time to document hundreds of small goals often? No. And so we have the perfect storm.

We inherited a small Goal/Objective mentality from our predecessors. We have been taught a Document Often mentality from our lawyers and compliance monitors. Current caseloads and methods prohibit us from doing frequent documentation. The result: we choose to keep writing very small Goals/Objectives but…now we only write a few of them! It is, truly, the perfect storm.  Between the medical model we began with, and the legal practices we inherited, we have completely lost sight of our educational mission to support a student's journey to his fullest potential.

In case you're feeling rather depressed and overwhelmed right now, let me stop here and tell you a story. I finished my student teaching in December so I planned to sub during the spring semester before applying for jobs to start the next fall. One of my very first subbing jobs was for an elementary P.E. teacher. His entire lesson plan for the day consisted of two words, "Play volleyball." Now, at first glance that just about fits the definition of big and vague. But, look again. Those two words told me to have the kids set up the net and find a volleyball, choose line judges and divide into teams, serve from behind the baseline and rotate after every serve, etc, etc, etc. Those two words kept an entire class completely occupied and successfully following enough rules to fill a small book. Why? Because everyone, including the kids, knew exactly what "volleyball" meant.

My point is that we in special education have been taught an erroneous mantra. We've been taught that small = measurable and big = vague. That is wrong, now, because we have a common set of educational Standards that are unchanging and available to everyone. If I write an Annual Goal that says a child will learn everything described in the eighth grade CCSS for Reading Informational Text, you bet that is a big goal. But, it is not vague. I have just named a precise list of exactly ten clearly written Grade-Specific Standards. No more, no less, no ambiguity about what the student needs to do, and everyone in the nation has access to the word-for-word source for my Objective at corestandards.org.

When people recite the small = measurable mantra what they are really saying is that they are not confident in their ability to write clearly so they have fallen back upon the crutch of listing as few things as possible in the hopes that the less they write the less room there is for error. For those people the Common Core State Standards should feel like a godsend. They never have to craft their own Goals or Objectives again. Instead they've been given a warm invitation to insert as many of the CCSS as they deem appropriate…and never do any of their own writing again! (My very favorite moment in this workshop is when I see this lightbulb moment happening all across the audience as teachers suddenly realize how much easier it is going to be to write IEPs from now on. Their faces truly light up with joy.)

When people recite the big = vague mantra what they are really saying is that they don't know what the heck these Standards are. If that substitute PE lesson plan had said, "Play cricket," I would have been stumped, too. Luckily for these people the standards are available to all at www.corestandards.org.

When people only want to write the minimum number of Goals/Objectives it means that they are not confident in their data collection practices. I teach an entire workshop on this and it all boils down to one good form and one good rubric. A hard look at inefficient practices, and then the willingness to change them, are all that is needed to accurately document all the data you'll ever need to record.

It is time to see our history with open eyes so that we may free ourselves of the perfect storm that has led to inadequate IEPs consisting of a few, small goals. It is time to serve our students well by writing individualized education plans that truly encompass a year's worth of content. It is time.