How do we think about goals for student learning in this context?

Emily Freitag
4 min readNov 3, 2021


This post is adapted from an email originally shared on October 29, 2021. If you would like to receive future emails, you can sign up here.

In recent conversations, I hear leaders wrestling with how to set goals. A special education leader recently told me this:

“Before COVID, we only had 33% of students passing state tests. Now we are down to 24%. So our ambitious yet achievable goal for the next three years is to get to 29%. Are you kidding me? That is what we are working towards? Can I, in good conscience, represent that goal as the best we can do? Given everything I know about how capable our students are and how underestimated they are, what does it say if I set such a low goal? And yet, hitting that goal will require us to improve at a faster rate than we have for any of the past five years. Wouldn’t any other goal just be a setup for failure? And what narrative would that perpetuate?”

One of the central conundrums in goal setting lives in the tension between feasibility and aspiration: should we set goals that we believe we can achieve but we know will not represent significant progress for students, or should we set goals based on what we want to see happen, despite the fact that we do not yet know how we will get there?

There are risks to setting goals that we don’t know how to achieve: it can feel demoralizing if stretch efforts do not play out successfully, we risk seeing a high number of schools as off track, and it adds stress to an already stressed team. We can remember the risks by remembering the way we felt about No Child Left Behind and the challenge of “Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).” But the risk of setting goals that we know we can achieve is that they don’t inspire the stretch efforts that unlock more progress for students. Teams sometimes meet stretch goals, but rarely do they dramatically over-perform achievable goals.

Grounding our goal setting in the path for individual students can help. Let’s look at two examples:

  • If we think of a 2nd grader still struggling with foundational reading skills, it is not hard to think of the support that would make it possible for her to get to grade-level proficiency in the next few years. She will probably need extra time and attention in the year to come, as well as a teacher ready to provide her with strong core instruction while monitoring her progress closely. She can learn a lot with great instruction this year but she may continue to need extra support next year and the year after — her 3rd- and 4th-grade teachers may need to be ready to support foundational skills instruction in a way they did not have to before. If her teachers are equipped with strong materials to support this learning and resources to provide these supports, it is not hard to imagine how she can achieve grade-level proficiency by the end of 4th or 5th grade.
  • If we think of a 9th grader who struggled with 8th-grade virtual learning while navigating Algebra I, it is not hard to imagine the support that would allow them to succeed. With a strong Algebra I course and teacher, they can learn a lot. They may need additional support — small-group lessons, a study group with other students to work through sticky problems together, potentially a tutor to help target the most important load bearing walls as they work through homework — but they can still thrive in advanced mathematics.

These examples demonstrate that student growth is immediately possible and necessary. They also demonstrate that, though it may take a couple of years to see students get to proficiency, it is achievable.

If we want our goals to center students, I propose that we have to orient towards setting goals based on what we want to see happen, even if we don’t know how we’ll get there.

In that spirit, I offer the following framework for goals over next five years:

  • Growth for every student in 2021–22 and 2022–23; greater growth for students in prioritized groups with targeted needs.
  • Full recovery of pre-COVID proficiency for priority groups by the end of the 2023–24 school year.
  • Notable improvement in proficiency over pre-COVID levels by 2025–26.

For the special ed director, this would translate to growth goals over last year’s baseline of 24% across the next two years (and growth measure progress if available); full recovery of 33% proficiency by 2023–24; 38% by 2025–26.

We don’t know how to achieve these goals. I write regularly about the fact that we already know a great deal about what works in supporting student learning. That remains true. But we know less about how to systemically deliver those fundamentals to every student, every year. It has been the exception more than the rule for schools to grow at the rate I suggest we should reach for.

But we do know students are capable of learning, and we know that we are capable of learning too. Reaching these goals will certainly take incredible creativity and hard work. They may not feel realistic, but I think we should believe we are capable of more than feels realistic at this moment. I suspect our young people would ask us to believe it of them.

Here is who I have been learning from recently:



Emily Freitag

Instruction Partners CEO, former AssistCommish for TDOE, library lover, Sunday afternoon chef and head of the Jan, Owen and Liam fan club.