The Moment Everything Changes

Goals should be timely and time-bound.

The first of the four critical questions of a Professional Learning Community process is, what is it we want our students to learn? This question underscores the need for teacher teams to identify the essential learning targets that we will ensure students master. Virtually every experienced educator would agree that teachers are saddled with too much to teach in too little time.

Most schools have traditionally left it up to individual teachers to determine essential learning outcomes and skills. But in a PLC, collaborative teams are expected to come to consensus on those priorities. These need-to-know essentials are learning targets and skills that prepare students to reach the following goals:

  • The next grade level
  • The next course
  • High stakes assessment (as applicable)
  • The skills and knowledge needed to succeed beyond the K-12 system

While these essentials do not represent all the curriculum that will be taught, it is the content the team will ensure every student masters.

So, my question for you is this: Once the essential learning targets have been agreed upon and identified, what changes about a team’s approach to these need-to-know targets versus the nice-to-know targets? While identifying essential standards is a critical first step, the work cannot stop with the identification of essential targets. The need-to-knows have to be approached with a completely different mindset than the nice-to-know targets. Teams must go from calling targets essential to treating targets like they’re essential. This mindset makes all the difference in the level of effectiveness of the team and improved teacher and student learning results. To assess if your team has created this mindset, here are some points to consider:

A Clear Purpose: Collaborative teams have a clear, urgent, and compelling purpose. Their purpose is to ensure that every student masters the agreed-upon essentials. Everything the team does is in the service of every student mastering those essential targets, including strategies shared, frustrations expressed, resources used, practices shared, student work artifacts reviewed, supports requested, and action plans developed and implemented.

A Sense of Urgency: Teams should operate in short term cycles. For example, if your school schedule is divided by quarters, then teams often arrange their targets according to what they will teach and assess by the end of the quarter. They set annual stretch goals and short-term SMART goals—attainable goals focused on students learning essential targets. An example of a stretch goal is: “100 percent of our fifth grade students will master all of the identified essential targets by the end of the year as measured by our district’s end-of-year assessment.”

During the year, the team also sets multiple short-term SMART goals, for example: “By March 31, 2016, at least ninety percent of our fifth grade students will master the five essential targets taught during the third quarter, as measured by our team’s common formative assessment.” The team recognizes that there will likely be some students who will need more time and support to master the essentials, so the ten percent who may not demonstrate mastery by the end of March will continue to receive targeted interventions delivered by members of the team and the school’s support staff. Notice that the team has one goal and collective responsibility for all students. This is an “our kids” approach.

Data Tracking: With the purpose of the collaborative team so crystal clear, teams develop timely, on-going processes to monitor student progress on a week-to-week basis. The stretch goal/SMART goal-setting necessitates an almost surgical approach to student mastery. This is another example of the sense of urgency the team must have when working to ensure learning for all…which brings me to the last point to consider…

The One Question that Matters: When teams regard mastery of these selected targets as essential, their work is guided by one overarching question: How will we get every student there? As Rick DuFour has said, “Don’t tell me you believe ‘all kids can learn.’ Tell me what you’re doing about the kids who aren’t learning.”

All means All: This last one is simple to understand, but more of a challenge to embrace it. If essential targets are absolutely necessary for student success, then can we have targets that are essential for some students, but not other students? Can we have essential learning targets for these kids and not for those kids? Of course not. I heard Mike Mattos define “all” in a keynote he delivered a couple of years ago as “any student expected to be a financially independent, productive member of our society.”

So there may be a tiny percentage of students who will need assistance for the rest of their lives for which team essential standards may not be appropriate. But everyone else falls under this definition of all…including our students supported by special education services, our bilingual learners, our students who come from poverty, and every other category we’ve created. All means ALL (which includes the kid you’re thinking about when I say, all…him too).


This definition of all, and this sense of urgency approach to essential targets, will challenge and stretch your expectations, perceptions, past practices, and level of commitment to its principles. I urge teams to be literal about the word essential. We must be surgical, strategic, and intentional about the quest to ensure mastery of essential standards. In too many places I have the honor of visiting, essential targets have been relegated to being those that are shown in bold and italics in the curriculum. We now know better. We must do better. Looking forward to your feedback as we continue this great work.

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