What does student success look like?

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I have been pondering this question as I prepared my poster presentation for the Kentucky Student Success Summit. I have made no secret of how troubling I find our national, state, and local conversations about student success – perhaps my biggest concern begins with a definition of success.

Far too many people, many who should know better, believe success can be, indeed should be, quantified and compared. That is just wrong, wrong, wrong on so many levels. Success is personal. It has to be. We are humans, we are individuals, and our success has to be individual, too. Success is not a one-size-fits-all proposition and it cannot be standardized. The only thing that can be standard are the benchmarks and floors but the ceilings and even the borders – those should not be limiting or limited.

By coopting student success we have not only undermined its value, but we have also changed its essential meaning. Success should be about dreams and hopes and possibilities – and the paths we follow to reach them. But if our students spend too much time looking at their feet to make sure they stay on the right path, the path determined not by their own dreams and goals but by others, then they are not looking ahead to those goals and, worse, they are not looking up to dream at all.

Educators should be concerned with student success, but I believe part of the problem is that we have taken away student freedom and responsibility to determine and drive their own success. This results in students who when asked to set goals link them to grades and test scores rather than hopes and dreams, because they have been taught by our system that those are good goals. How sad is that? Those aren’t goals and I am ashamed to be part of a system which shills such nonsense.

So what is student success? I think we need to spend a lot less time, energy, and money focusing on benchmarks and minimums and more time, energy, and money on fostering student motivation and confidence. Basic skill competence is not enough to ensure success – for our students or our world – we must also encourage dreams and urge our students to pursue them.

Student success is not defined by test scores and graduation rates. Student success is about dreams achieved, but even more than that student success is about the creativity, thinking, and learning that takes place along the way. How do you define student success?