Exploring the Meaning of Success in School

What do we want from our schools? Do we want high scores on high stakes tests? Do we want small class sizes? Do we want safe campuses? Can’t we have it all?

As a head of school, I hear a variety of answers from parents, which can change depending on the context of the conversation. At the essence, parents want a child to learn. In this time of constant change, schools cannot prepare children for the knowledge they will need in their adult lives, but we can prepare them to learn, to be resourceful, to tackle problems head on and to ask good questions to identify a problem in the first place.

There are a variety of books topping the summer must-read list for educators. Each one espouses its own pathway to improving our schools. The sheer number that have been published in the past few years speaks to the need for school change on some level. The books do offer similar assertions that could be summarized as follows: schools need to encourage creativity among teachers and students; students need different methods for learning including self-directed, engaged learning; higher ed needs to improve teacher education, and adults need to focus more on resiliency (grit) in students who are willing to take on challenges.

One book caught my attention. In “The Smartest Kids in the World,” author Amanda Ripley suggests that a parent can identify a world-class education not through statistics such as class size, tests scores, spending per students, college matriculation, or notable honors and awards, but by asking hard questions of school administrators. As you can imagine, I was intrigued by these questions and found myself agreeing with the author that their answers offer excellent insight into a school.

Some of Ripley’s questions have straightforward answers. How do you make your teachers better? We need to establish high standards, but we must offer teachers the professional autonomy in the methods used to meet them. Real accountability happens through collegial observations and performance evaluations modeled after medical rounds. At our school, we call these learning walks, which allow every teacher to be involved with school and teacher improvement. As patterns of improvement needs emerge, they are tied to professional development opportunities.

Other answers require more complexity. How do you measure success?

Success is found in student learning. As a nation, we got confused somewhere along the line that learning was evidenced by high grades and high test scores. As long as our children could achieve that, teachers were doing their jobs. This would all translate into success in school and later in life. It doesn’t – not by my definition of success, anyway. Student learning can be observed and demonstrated in so many ways. Sometimes the best measurement of student success is found in a simple question or a failed project that leads to learning from mistakes made.

Some questions get answered in the negative. How do you keep raising the bar to find out what kids can do? It’s not about hitting a benchmark. Some students hit it before the school year begins. First-grade reading level? – been there, done that. Multiplication tables? Check. Instead, it is about challenging a student, so he or she knows the rush of truly learning – being pushed to the point that learning is awkward.

If we are raising the bar, there are days when the child feels inadequate because something didn’t come easily. There are classrooms in which a child is uncomfortable because they’re social and can’t conform to independent work or they are introverted, deep thinkers who would prefer not to find a hypothesis with a group of three classmates. On those days, children benefit from adults who see failures and frustrations as part of learning without accepting or making common excuses such as “Math isn’t your thing.” Simply showing up and going through the motions doesn’t raise the bar. We have to be more honest with children about their skills, their strengths, their weaknesses and their focus. They deserve it.

What do we want from our schools? We may not even know how very much we can expect, but they are questions worth exploring. The children will rise to the occasion if we do.

Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 5 and 9.