An executive in my office has a favorite mantra, one that has become so familiar to everybody in our company that at meetings, celebrations, conferences—really, any gathering of two or more employees—all he needs to do is mouth the first word and the rest of us chime in: “What does success look like?” It’s not all that unique or profound, but it’s still a question that gets at the core of the staggeringly enormous apple that we call education.
When will we know we’ve accomplished our goals? How do we recognize when we’ve achieved our purpose? The answer? I’ve been thinking about that a lot the last several days. When I consider all the factors that go into defining success and all the individuals that hold a stake in it, I realize that I have to respond with a phrase that’s practically a truism: it depends. It depends on whom you ask; it depends on whose perspective you seek; it depends on who’s doing the looking.
What does educational success look like to, say, a district administrator, whose graduation rates are decent and whose test scores and college acceptance figures are OK but whose budget is out of line? Can success be defined as balancing the district’s books while not losing ground in terms of student achievement? Or is that administrator or curriculum coordinator looking for something more, or something different?
How about classroom educators—what does success look like for them? Is it having their students post the district’s highest average scores on a particular standardized test? Is it seeing student achievement rise measurably while subjectively sensing that each and every student has been engaged? Might success be defined as managing a seamless blended implementation and moving forward to a richer, more fully integrated second year? Or could success be defined as moving the class forward while avoiding individual or collective crisis in whatever form?
And parents? Is educational success having a daughter or son learn to read fluently by a certain age or grade level, or graduate from high school, or gain admission to a prestigious college, or simply stay eligible for athletics? Is it witnessing a desired performance outcome, or is success, for parents, more about the quality of their child’s total experience from preschool through grade 12?
What about community stakeholders such as employers or government representatives? What does success look like in their eyes? Clearly, employers hope for competent, skilled graduates to fill jobs. Government officials doubtless look to a well-educated young cohort to grow the economy and become responsible voting citizens.
But what of the students themselves? What do they think about when they think about success? Are they content to accept the definitions of their parents, teachers, coaches, and future employers? Some are. Do they have ideas of their own? Certainly some are seduced by the rewards of celebrity, hoping—realistically or not—to become the next sports superstar or entertainment sensation. But I recently heard some students discussing a newly implemented project-based learning program in their school. These were inner-city students whose parents and older siblings had experienced little approaching anyone’s definition of educational success. When asked for their own perspectives, they all raved about how, for the first time in a long time, school seemed relevant. They could actually perceive a purpose in the hours spent in class and in the lab and in workshops. They got it, and not only did they get it, but they felt as if they owned it, owned their education, owned their own success. It wasn’t about grades; it wasn’t even necessarily about college. It was, however, about them.
I haven’t delved too deeply into specifics here, and I realize that I haven’t revealed any seismic truths. My purpose is just to suggest that, as we who are invested in growing and nurturing the educational experience move forward in whatever capacity, while we understandably define success for ourselves, we remain mindful of the perspectives of all our fellow stakeholders. Pick up the apple, turn it around, and look at it from all sides. Consider whether success might look completely different to someone just as invested as you.