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The Definition of Student Success: What Does it Mean to You?

| Ken Messersmith

The report "A New Day for Learning," recently released by the Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force, argues that we must redefine the school day if we are to improve student achievement in the United States. The authors of the report, funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, lay out five elements of their proposed new learning system.

The first element states that we must "redefine what student success means beyond the acquisition of basic skills, support the time it takes to experience success, and develop sophisticated ways to measure it."

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This three-pronged statement, centered on student success, begins with a call for a new definition for the phrase "student success." Philosophers have debated for centuries about what it is to be an educated person. I am not convinced we can agree on what it is to be successfully educated, but we must individually have some vision in mind if we are to be able to determine whether we have hit the mark.

Most Americans, I believe, would define student success as the ability of a student to support himself or herself in this society after completing the educational process. Our value and belief systems are strongly based on economics and accumulation of material wealth. How often do you hear parents say, "I don't want my children to have to come home to live with me after completing their education"?

It's difficult to argue with the fact that the ability to support oneself economically is a goal of the educational process, but it is not the only goal. If it were, we would not need schools; we could easily achieve success by matching students with professional mentors and letting them learn on the job.

What additional definitions could we use for student success? I would like to suggest a few, and I am interested in what you would add. Student success, I believe, means the ability to

  • understand the rights and responsibilities that allow us to function as contributing members of our democracy.
  • cooperate and collaborate with others in work, social, and family settings.
  • make independent decisions based on reasoning supported by facts gathered and analyzed by students.
  • relate in a positive and constructive manner with family members and other members of the world community.
  • take responsibility for one's own actions and act supportively and compassionately toward others.

Maybe, though, it would be easier to list things that should not be included in our definition of student success. It is not a sign of student success to

  • score highly on an arbitrarily chosen standardized test.
  • help beat a rival football, basketball, or wrestling team into submission.
  • have every student specialize in science, technology, engineering, or math in order to beat the Chinese in the economic realm.
  • efficiently perform repetitive tasks in a factory setting.

How do you define student success? The form of our future educational system is dependent on how we answer this question. Please offer your suggestions.

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Comments (30)

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Tracey (not verified)


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I also believe that student success should be measured by their growth. This may sound extremely simple. but if a kid enters my classrooms and leaves knowing more about science and more about importance of education, I consider he or she a success. However, I think my idea of success may be changing based on our standards or performance requirements. I think we have associated a teacher's success in the classroom with student performance on a standardized test. Just think about some of the requirements of NCLB for example. Our kids may have reached a 9% increase but if it's not at 10% then we haven't been successful. This bothers me on so many levels because I think teachers have began to teach a kid that success is measured in how well you take a multiple choice test. So how do you balance your idea of success with the ideas of success held by school systems and national leaders?

Nicole (not verified)

I believe that student

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I believe that student success stems from students setting goals and reaching those goals each week, quarter, semester, and/or year. I teach very young children so I am speaking from the perspective of a primary educator. I know that it makes a huge difference in the lives of young children when they have ownership over their own goals. I think that adults (teachers, parents) often forget that young children think a lot of themselves and believe that they can do so much.
Young children like to know what is going to happen next. They want to know what is expected of them and then they want to try and do it (and sometimes they want to see if they can do it better). The early years are perfect timing for introducing goal setting because you can let them know what they are expected to accomplish and they will (more times than not) believe that they can accomplish and will take the steps necessary to reach their goals. I do think that it takes educators being willing to sit down and actually talk to the students about their ambitions and following up (a lot, especially with young ones) to make sure that they know that they remain on the right track. It may take lots of modeling, mini-lessons, and innovative teaching, but isn't that what we teachers are here to do?
I agree with several of the other comments...success belongs to an individual and it is not exactly the same for all students. But, would it not be a wonderful thing to see students from the time they are in the primary grades become real life goal setters and goal getters? Not just saying, but actually doing.

Cheryl (not verified)

I agree that success is

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I agree that success is based on individual ability. Guided reading, the writing workshop, and differentiated instruction all seem to support the notion that students learn on different levels. Therefore success should be measured based on how much growth they show on their level.

shannon (not verified)

I agree with you that the

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I agree with you that the success of each student is going to be different. I am trying to learn how to accurately assess the success of students without comparing them to each other too much, and yet still hold them to the same standards. Do you have any suggestions for how to do this?

Shannon (not verified)

student succes

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I think that successful students are those who are capable of using critical thinking skills in a way that helps them answer practical problems and be a contributing member in their homes and work places. Students will have areas of strength and weakness, but as long as they are working hard and improving in all areas, they can consider themselves a success. As teachers, I think it is important for us to remember that not all of our students are going to reach the levels of proficiency in every subject area that we desire them to; but as long as we are providing them with the tools they need and holding them accountable to reach standards which they will need to meet in the working world, then they will be able to have success.

Mary (not verified)

Student Success

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Student success, in my opinion, is the result of many factors. One of the most important factors is the ability for a student to be "self-motivated" or a "self-starter". When a child has the ability to develop these qualities and use them appropriately, their possibilities for success are many. Environment, positive role models,availability of necessary resources and opportunities for experiences outside of the classroom, are also additional factors that help in defining a student's success. However, when a child does not have these items factored into their life, the scenario is much different. This particular student has to be introduced to the value of this mindset and where it can lead. Sometimes it works (or is at least helpful) and sometimes it does not.
As a fifth grade teacher, I have made a commitment in helping my students to set goals for themselves at the very beginning of the year. If they're used to this kind of activity, it will seem almost "normal" for them. If they are not used to this, I am hopeful in helping them to lay the groundwork for eventual success.

Melissa (not verified)

Student Success

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I think that student success all depends on the student. What may make one student successful, may not make another successful. What I look for in second grade is that my students have grown throughout the year. The fact they are trying their hardest and working to their full potential. I think that success is different for each and every student, just as it is different for all adults.

Suzanne (not verified)

Student Success?

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Messersmith's article interested me as I begin my Master's degree in Teacher Leadership. We're focusing in this module on efficacy of teachers, but I think it's important to look at effectiveness of the student and in some ways that will help the measure of the success and effectiveness of a teacher. Sure, superficically we can say that a successful student is one who earns the best grades and performs well on tests, but there's more to being successful. What makes a successful adult? Money? Influence? Power? Where is love? Happiness? Self-satisfaction? I think that ideas like these need to be included in the definition of what makes a successful student as well.

Lisa (not verified)

student success

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I think that success in education would be giving students the tools to succeed in life. This is a rather vague statement, I do acknowledge, but it needs to be somewhat vague to suit the needs of millions of students.
If we give the students enough background knowledge in a variety of subjects, critical thinking skills, and a love of learning then a student can reach their goals no matter what they are.

Anonymous (not verified)

This is my personal

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This is my personal definition of student success.

I believe to be successful a student will become a whole citizen, encompassing the values society expects, while raising our standard of living , elevating personal responsibility and actively contributing to a just and fair society.

This is the theme in my classroom as well as a personal code I remain faithful to in my own life.
Kids do not live in a vacuum; although many times we try to protect them from the viles of the world, to better the world they need to participate and evaluate the real truths held for their future.

Hey, for what it's are natural discoverers and see easier the ruins of our society. They express many times: What can we do?
I explain...first educate yourself, then take on life.

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