Does stressing performance goals lead to too much, well, stress?



Schools must set rigorous expectations for all students, but schools also must be thoughtful about how they define and pursue those expectations.


If schools lack high standards, students will not achieve at high levels. That assumption seems true on its face, has been confirmed by empirical research (Nieto, 1992; Ferguson, 2002; Clark & Cookson, 2012), and has provided a firm foundation for more than two decades of educational policymaking. Even today, after the demise of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, reformers continue to push schools to raise their academic expectations and for districts and states to hold them accountable for all students’ performance. Further, the moral imperative to focus on more ambitious and equitable outcomes remains as urgent as ever — for example, among black students who took the ACT last year, just 11% scored at a level indicating that they are “strongly college ready” (ACT, 2016).

Setting bold performance objectives has clear benefits, but putting too much emphasis on reaching ambitious goals can encourage all sorts of undesirable behaviors. Some teachers and administrators have used the excuse of reaching specific targets to explain why they helped students cheat on state tests, doctored test sheets, and inflated graduation records (Katsikas, 2015; Blinder, 2015). Similarly, when businesses set audacious sales goals, they have found that workers overcharge customers and recommend needless repairs, and when real estate developers make unrealistic promises about the completion data for a new building, engineers tend to cut corners, putting safety at risk (Ordonez et al., 2009). Sometimes these unwelcome side effects can be truly massive in scale, as the country learned from the mortgage meltdown of 2008: When lenders aim for record numbers of commissions, they tend to hand out bad loans.

Simply put, stressing goals often leads to stressed-out people. When we become too aggressive in our focus on performance objectives, people can become less able to meet them.

We believe wholeheartedly that schools must set rigorous expectations for all students. But schools must be thoughtful about how they define and pursue those expectations.

Forests and trees

Part of the problem is that educators tend to confuse the measure of the goal with the goal itself. For instance, let’s say that our objective is “preparing more students for the demands of college, work, and life in the 21st century.” That sounds like a worthy goal. But every worthy goal is complex and begs additional questions: What exactly are 21st-century demands? How prepared is prepared enough? Does “more students” also mean more equity?

When people come together to flesh out such goals in greater depth, they develop a greater sense of ownership in them. Individually, they feel empowered and autonomous, and, at the same time, they feel they have become part of something important and bigger than just themselves. As a wealth of research evidence suggests, such feelings of autonomy and purpose are key components of motivating, productive work (Pink, 2009).

But while we may feel good about our work, how do we know that we’re making progress? For this, we need measures, or indicators, of our performance. For example, we might aim to move a certain percentage of students to the proficient level on state tests or to raise the graduation rate by a certain percentage. Setting targets is not enough; we have to set targets that are challenging enough to push us to stretch and innovate, or meeting them wouldn’t really count as progress.

So far, so good: We’ve set an inspiring and challenging goal, and we’ve defined clear and tangible measures of success. What happens, though, when stakes are added to the mix?

The incentives might be negative (if we fail to hit our targets, we’ll be labeled a failing school, perhaps face a state takeover), or they might be positive (hitting our targets will bring accolades and additional funding). Either way, we shift our attention from the pursuit of a big, noble goal — preparing students for life in the 21st century — to hitting small, narrowly defined targets that trigger sanctions or rewards. Sooner or later, hitting those targets becomes the only goal that matters; we no longer see them as a means to an end but as the end itself. We lose sight of the forest for the trees.

At this point, the goal is no longer something that you helped define and that you own. Now it’s something being done to you. Given the many variables influencing test scores and graduation rates year by year, you likely feel that you have limited control over the outcomes against which you’ll be judged. Stress overtakes inspiration. Anxiety replaces optimism.

Educators can encourage the right student outcomes in the right ways through a thoughtful focus on the goals that matter most and by nurturing growth mindsets among staff and students.

Less distant, more meaningful goals

If it’s true that what gets measured is what gets done, then measuring the right things is all the more important. Yes, outputs like standardized test scores and graduation rates are important, but if hitting those performance targets comes at the expense of engagement, empathy, and the tools for lifelong learning, then we neglect an important part of the education landscape. Monitoring outcomes that matter is critical. That includes measuring metacognitive factors (such as mindset, perseverance, and self-regulation) that drive rich, deep learning.

Don’t get us wrong, schools still need performance measures. If we see that they have destructive side effects, that doesn’t mean we should eliminate the use of metrics. Instead, we should shift the emphasis toward a greater use of low-stakes, formative assessments, which help us learn, adjust, and refine our efforts. And rather than always measuring progress against a fixed target, we also can assess the ongoing process of improvement, asking whether students are developing learning behaviors that will serve them in the long run, including everything from attention and focus to grit and perseverance to empathy and engagement.

In recent years, researchers have shown that such learning behaviors are critical to success in college, careers, and other parts of life. (They are often described as noncognitive factors, but since no human behavior is truly divorced from cognition, we prefer the term “metacognitive,” which highlights the role that executive function plays in all thinking.) For example, a long-term analysis of subjects from Robert Mischel’s famous marshmallow study showed that children with strong self-regulation skills — those who resisted the temptation to eat a second marshmallow — had greater academic and life success than their less strong-willed peers (2014). Other studies have found that strong executive functioning, including self-regulation, is a better predictor of school success than intelligence tests (see Duckworth & Carlson, 2013, for a review of this research). Findings from economic research suggest that succeeding at high-value jobs requires knowledge, skills, and empathy — the ability to work with others to solve complex problems (Deming, 2015).

Fortunately, incorporating low-stakes assessments of learning behaviors — the metacognitive elements — can help mitigate the stresses associated with high-stakes performance objectives. They allow students and teachers alike to shift from an anxious, single-minded emphasis on their ability to meet a distant target to something like a “growth mindset,” or a disciplined focus on the specific efforts needed for improvement.

A schoolwide academic mindset

As Camille Farrington and colleagues (2012) have found, positive academic mindsets tend to be associated with statements such as:

  • I belong in this academic community;
  • My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  • I can succeed at this; and
  • This work has value for me.

So how can educators create learning environments in which students feel they belong, have opportunities to grow, can succeed as a result of focused effort, and see value and purpose in their work?

Research suggests that students’ overall sense of belonging to a school community — which is directly related to improved outcomes (Walton & Cohen, 2007; Walton & Cohen, 2011; Yeager & Walton, 2011) — often depends on the quality of their connection to a small number of individuals, such as specific teachers, coaches, teams, or clubs. One priority, then, is to make it easier for students to build meaningful relationships, such as by assigning them to small advisory sessions, engaging them in cross-age peer mentoring, and providing many opportunities to participate in activities they enjoy. Every student should be able to find at least one part of the school to which they want to belong.

Students’ belief in the value of effort is strengthened when they have ongoing opportunities to see that hard work leads to improvement. However, traditional grading policies are entirely inconsistent with a growth mindset because they often reward students for what they already know and can do rather than encouraging further effort and recognition of one’s progress. We must move beyond tired old rules such as “students may not complete missing work and make-up tests.” Instead, we must find ways to require students to improve upon their initial work, such as when teachers assign students to assess and revise their writing projects. In short, let’s create more tasks and tests that support continuous learning rather than ones that result in a final stamp of approval or disapproval, which only confirms the belief that students have fixed abilities.

Students’ belief in their ability to be successful improves when schools have supports that allow them to experience success in frequent, if small, doses, as Benjamin Bloom found in a number of seminal studies beginning in the 1960s (Bloom 1968, 1984). Bloom called this mastery learning; today, we might call it proficiency-based learning or Tier 2 of a Response to Intervention model. Whatever the terminology, when educators regularly conduct formative assessments of student work and when they use that information to guide further instruction, interventions, and enrichments, they can help all students master essential concepts and skills.

Finally, students’ belief in the value of school will grow when they see relevance and purpose in the tasks that they are assigned. The urge to cover as many topics as possible, still a driving principle in much curriculum planning, must give way to efforts to teach fewer topics at greater depth, with more opportunity for students to explore rich problems, including problems of their choosing. Racing through the curriculum makes every part of it seem less valuable. We need to teach less and encourage students to learn more, with greater engagement.

Bad news, good news

When students believe that they can learn, they tend to learn more and more deeply than when they don’t (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992). When teachers believe they can help all students learn well, they tend to get better student outcomes than when they have little confidence in their own efficacy (Pfaff, 2000).

The bad news is that students and teachers are feeling more stressed at school than ever. The realities of students’ lives are more challenging, the expectations within schools are higher, and the future for which we are preparing students is changing at increasingly rapid rates.

The good news is that we have never known more, and there has never been greater consensus, regarding the affective skills, or metacognitive factors that can lead to happier and more productive teachers and students and that produce more powerful teaching and learning.

An overemphasis on high-stakes performance goals undermines success and increases stress levels throughout K-12 education. Through a thoughtful focus on the goals that matter most and through efforts to nurture growth mindsets among staff and students, we can encourage the right student outcomes in the right ways.



ACT. (2016, August 24). ACT scores down for 2016 U.S. grad class due to increased percentage of students tested. [Press release].

Blinder A. (2015, April 1). Atlanta educators convicted in school cheating scandal. New York Times.

Bloom, B. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1 (2). Published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation and Instructional Programs.

Bloom. B.S. (1984, May). The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Leadership, 41 (8), 4-17.

Clark, C. & Cookson, Jr., P.W. (2012). High standards help struggling students: New evidence. Washington, DC: Education Sector.

Deming, D.J. (2015). The growing importance of social skills in the labor market. NBER Working Paper #w21473. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Duckworth, A.L. & Carlson, S.M. (2013). Self-regulation and school success. In B.W. Sokol, F.M.E. Grouzet, & U. Muller (Eds.), Self-regulation and autonomy: Social and developmental dimensions of human conduct, pp. 208-230.

Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Ferguson, R. (2002). What doesn’t meet the eye: Understanding and addressing racial disparities in high-achieving suburban schools. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Katsikas, A. (2015, January 13). Same performance, better grades. The Atlantic.

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Nieto, S. (1992). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Ordonez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of over-prescribing goal setting. Working Paper #09-083. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.

Pfaff, M.E. (2000). The effects on teacher efficacy of school-based collaborative activities structured as professional study groups. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Pink, D.H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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Walton, G.M. & Cohen, G.L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

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Originally published in March 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (6), 31-34. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.


DAVID DOCKTERMAN ( is a senior fellow at the International Centers for Leadership in Education, Rexford, N.Y.
CHRIS WEBER ( is a senior fellow at the International Centers for Leadership in Education, Rexford, N.Y.

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