What is a Vision without Impacts?

Note:  Originally published in 2015 and on the Common Ground Collaborative Web site.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in my work with schools. Most schools will state their aspirations to make ambitious improvements to learning within their organizations in order to address the real and urgent needs of our students. Whether it’s “global citizenship”, “21st century learners” or “students who can thrive in an ever-changing future”, Mission and Vision statements are full of such noble aspirations.

But, why do we see such little “real” change in schools? Lots of activity, but little change.

When I ask schools with such goals in their Missions, “What does that look like and how do you know?” I often get puzzled looks and references to programs they’ve implemented. That’s great, but where is the evidence of achieving your Mission anchored in real student learning?

When I ask about how they are addressing their goal of global citizenship, they might answer that they have implemented a program and graduation requirements for service learning. Fantastic! And, how do you know that this is achieving your goal of supporting kids in becoming global citizens? And, by the way, what does global citizenship look like? What are the skills and dispositions that students can demonstrate that provide evidence that they are achieving this goal?

I’ve experienced the same thing when asking about “21st century learning”: “Oh, we have a 1:1 program.” Or, the goal of “creating responsible members of society”: “We have a character education program.” These do not represent evidence of achieving your mission-driven goals; they represent evidence of implementation of a program or structure.

Having a 1:1 program does not automatically equate with developing “21st century learners”. Having a character education program does not, shazam, result in everyone becoming “responsible”. If it were that easy and causal, we’d have solved many issues long ago. This is an example of schools conflating ends and means, or goals and vehicles.

It’s as if wishing it were so is the same as making it so.

Jay McTighe and I explore this issue in our book, Leading Modern Learning: A Blueprint for Vision-Driven Schools (Solution Tree, 2015 and 2019). In the book, we attempt to lay out a blueprint for the achievement of Impacts in very tangible forms and outline the ways in which various systems can be brought into alignment with these goals. I think it’s a good book J.

I believe that most schools are very genuine about desiring these things for their students, but very, very few have been able to move from aspirational to intentional. As a result, they tend to anchor their perceived success in the actions they have taken or the programs they have implemented and not in the evidence directly derived from student learning every day. This requires an alignment of their highest goals for learning and their curriculum, assessment, grading and reporting systems . . . not an easy task, but a necessary one.

And so, I attempted to design a way to keep the highest goals at the core of a school’s/district’s Mission and Vision. I wanted to help schools put these goals where they should be: front, center and the North Star towards which all efforts, programs and systems should gravitate. Instead of pushing from the front (through the implementation of programs), I’d rather pull from the end zone (with an earnest desire to see appropriate evidence of these goals through student learning). This led to the development of my Input-Output-Impacttm framework.

It’s not a complex framework. Inputs and Outputs reflect the work a school does. Impacts, however, represent the core goals of a school or district. Input and Outputs can be measured by the completion of action steps and implementation plans. The achievement of desired Impacts can only be evidenced through the processes and products of student learning. And this requires appropriate metrics to assess student performance and growth in these areas.

So, what is an Impact? “Impact” is a very common word, but I have a more specific set of descriptors:

  • An Impact represents the highest goals for student learning, often spanning academic areas.
  • An Impact should strive for a transformative goal, not one we traditionally view as cumulative learning in traditional areas.
  • An Impact should represent a “moral imperative” (or, as Michael Fullan would say, a “moral purpose”) for the organization.
  • An Impact should clarify the “what” for the “why” of schooling with an eye to the future.
  • An Impact must be student centered, not organizationally centered.
  • An Impact must be compelling and accessible to the broader community.
  • And, above all, an Impact must be “learnable and demonstrable” by students . . . we must be able to observe and “capture” demonstrations of the skills and dispositions related to important Impacts on a regular basis.

I advocate for a few clearly articulated and unpacked Impacts to guide the development and alignment of all systems within a school or district. It is challenging, but I have also seen the powerful focus that this can provide for all members of a school community in a concerted effort to achieve these and a desire to know that they have.

The IOI model is really quite simple. I use it with schools to help bring the lofty ambitions of Missions and Visions down to a level that can actually be engaged with by teachers and demonstrated by students. I also use it as a way to guide the development of aligned strategic actions and products, the Inputs and Outputs, needed to achieve these Impacts. Finally, evaluation of evidence of Impact is the best way that I know for a school to demonstrate achievement of Mission and the correlation between the Inputs and Outputs undertaken and the realization of their desired Impacts.

In short, I use the framework to “backwards design” for strategic design/planning and to develop “forwards implementation” actions (as far as I know, time moves forward in schools).


It may seem like a qualitative difference between traditional Mission and Vision statements and desired Impacts. They’re all just words, aren’t they? But, when coupled with a commitment to focusing curriculum design, assessment design, grading and reporting on providing evidence of achievement of Impacts through the processes and products of student learning, the shift can be powerful.

Try asking yourself these questions: “What are our highest level goals to help prepare our students for their future, what do these look like, and how will you know that they are being realized?”

In coming pieces, I’ll explore the alignment of teaching and learning systems, new metrics for assessing Impacts, and frameworks and strategies for implementation.