Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Avoiding Traps in Defining Success

What does it mean to be a "success"? That question is not answered in a simple way.

  • Success is achievement. Specific goals are set, and success is claimed when those goals are met.
  • Success is attainment. Specific levels of wealth, power, knowledge, or fame are desired, and success is claimed when those levels are surpassed.
  • Success is accomplishment. Specific obstacles are identified, and success is claimed when those obstacles are overcome.

Recently I sat in a professional meeting where we talked about what the "main thing" was for our district, that standard we all seem to be trying to achieve as we educate students. According to the speakers, who had who had conducted many focus groups in the district over the last few weeks, the "main thing" for our district was the High School Graduate. All of our teachers, K-12, should be invested in educating students in such a way that increases their chance of graduating in a timely manner with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. The speakers talked about colleg and career readiness and the Common Core Standards and AYP, all of which have driven the definitions of success for our schools and our district.

This definition of success is certainly on the top of my list as a high school administrator, but I see the two traps inherent in this and any definition of success. The first trap is the Disconnect Trap. I think of the hundreds of students I have taught over my 14 years in the classroom, and I know their definitions of success sometimes did not connect with mine. While I wanted for all of them to go to college, I knew not all of them hoped for that future. While I wanted for all of them to make an A in my class, I knew that a few of them really wanted that, and some would not be willing to do what it took to earn that. Their definitions of success were disconnected from mine, and that disconnect made my students and me interpret effort, results, and success differently. If a student earned a low B on a test and didn't turn in a homework assignment, I may view that as a setback or failure, but my student may see that as a success, considering that he was shooting for a high C on his test and decided to hang out with his friends instead of doing his homework. In setting standards for our students' success, we have to remember to include them in our standard-setting. They have to be invested like us in the goals, levels, and obstacles so that the actions necessary to achieve success are fruitful. We have to be connected to them in order to understand and help mold their definitions of success.

The second trap is the Differentiation Trap. The big push right now is to get students "college and career ready." This push recognizes that there are skills necessary for success in both college and the workforce and that schools need to prepare students for a possible future in a college and a possible future in a career. For too long, college-prep and career-prep programs have resided at opposite ends of the educational divide, leaving students with an either-or choice rather than a both-and choice. But educators need to be careful when they say things like, "Not all kids are going to go to college." Even though the new college-and-career-ready focus hopes to make both college and career desirable for students, education has a long history of tracking students into paths that keep the college-ready from the career-ready. We may have the best of intentions, but to neglect the tendency to stigmatize career-prep education in favor of college-prep education is to open ourselves up to judging students before they are finished learning. We have to make sure our benchmarks for success do not keep students from having options for their future selves. If a student doesn't pass the algebra placement test in 7th grade, are they doomed to lower-level math that will not prepare them for college admission? If a student shows an aptitude for fashion design, do we keep them from taking AP Biology? If so, we are not differentiating our definitions of success to include those who may bloom late or who may have college-ready interest in different areas. We cannot fall back into "college or career readiness." We should not be the final arbitors of students' futures. We should be the providers of options for students' futures.

Success involves two important components:

1. The setting of a standard - a goal or a level or an obstacle.
2. An action that moves on toward the goal or level or over the obstacle.

By keeping the Disconnect Trap and the Differentiation Trap in mind as we define success, we can set better standards and plan more concrete action plans that will move our students toward actual success. Whatever our definitions of success for our students, we need to include them in the discussion and be willing to open our own minds to include definitions that we didn't imagine ourselves.

Let's define success in such a way that all students will look back on their K-12 education and say, "My teachers believed in me and helped me be successful in ways I could not have imagined." To me, that's the best definition of success I can imagine.

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