Jul 21, 2011

Failure and Success

“Success is dependent on effort.” Sophocles
My whole life I've believed that hard work will lead to success. Not the kind of success that means I'll be raking in the dough, living a life of luxury; but the kind of success that makes me comfortable to live in my own skin, feeling good about myself and the work that I do. No regrets. Inner peace. Satisfaction in a job well done.  

I want my children to achieve success--not necessarily the kind that is measured in dollars and cents or popularity, but the kind that comes from knowing they have put forth their best effort and achieved a goal. Self-satisfaction, happiness, and continual growth are what I wish for them. To help my children become lifelong learners who know what it means to try their best, I send them to school. Most Americans send children to school so that they can learn and succeed. But how do we measure learning and success in schools?

Some rights reserved by Wayan Vota
Schools are places where teachers and students put in tremendous amounts of effort each and every day. Kids try their hardest to learn and achieve. Amazing things happen in classrooms where teachers are passionate, and they work closely with their students. A student can start the school year only able to read 10 words and end the year able to read hundreds. She can start the year not knowing how to complete a long-division problem and end it knowing how to solve any long-division problem she sees. Miracles of learning happen every day in classrooms all over the world! Yet in our current education system, those miracles don't always count as successes.

According to current U.S. educational policy,  a child who learns long-division after months of struggling is not necessarily a successful student. The teacher who patiently helped that student learn, trying multiple teaching strategies, never giving up until she found the right one, is not necessarily a successful teacher. A school that is filled with students and teachers who grow together, performing miracles of learning each day, is not necessarily a successful school. Why? Because our government doesn't count any educational success that can't be measured by a standardized test.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) requires schools to test their students each year and report their test scores to the federal government. Every student in every school is supposed to meet government mandated proficiency levels. Any school receiving Title I funds and not meeting those proficiency levels is required to notify parents, and give them the opportunity to transfer their children to another school that is meeting proficiency requirements.

  Some rights reserved by Matthew McVickar
According to the government guidelines, by 2014 all students are supposed to be at 100% proficiency. That means everyone will be perfect. Everyone will be successful because all kids in the U.S. will be getting perfect scores on their standardized tests...and if they aren't? Those schools that do not achieve 100% proficiency will be sanctioned. They might get shut down. Those teachers might get fired. And those kids? They will be failures who attended a failing school. They will get a new staff or get bussed to a new school in hopes that they will eventually pass the test. Forget about the miracles of learning, the tremendous effort, or the amazing growth they've shown. If it can't be measured on a test, it doesn't count as success.

Across the country this month, schools that receive Title I funds and are not meeting proficiency on standardized tests will notify parents that they are failing to meet the government requirements. Parents receiving those letters will have the option to transfer their children to another school. If you are a parent who receives such a letter, I encourage you to talk to parents in your neighborhood, call the principal at your school, and find out what goes on in classrooms. You are bound to find examples of success that can't be measured once or twice a year on a standardized test. Look for proof that students are growing and performing daily miracles of learning.  Ask yourself--how do I measure success? Is your definition of success based on standardized test scores? Is your child's success dependent upon how they do at filling in bubbles? Was your success measured in that way? 

If there is more to your definition of success than test scores, consider staying in your neighborhood school and celebrating the incredible effort put in by hardworking students and teachers every day. Celebrate the real successes--the kind that come from doing the best you can... rather than the kind that come from filling in the dots on a score sheet.

Vincent Van Gogh said,
 "Happiness...it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."
I agree.  I want to measure my children's success by their happiness and growth...not by their test scores. 

How do you measure success?

***Note*** Three states (ID, MT, SD) refuse to sanction schools who don't meet the standards set by NCLB. They may lose federal funds, but they will no longer have to measure success by standardized test scores. This article discusses those states and their decision.


  1. Ugh, I have so many things to say about NCLB. First of all, as a college professor, I don't care if my students were able to fill in bubble sheets before they get to my class. I want students to be able to THINK! That is barely being taught in our schools any more because that doesn't result in higher test scores. Also, from a psychometric perspective, the tests we are using are horrible. They have lousy validity and reliability, which are the keystones to good tests.

    As the mother of a gifted child, I am also frustrated because NCLB means that if a child is hitting expectations, that child gets no more encouragement. We want all children to be "average" and talented kids are not encouraged to go above and beyond the test. Gifted kids need to be taught too. They can't figure everything out on their own just because they are gifted.

    Finally, NCLB really totally ignores the role of community, parenting, and poverty. My child gets three meals a day and snacks. My child always has access to a parent. My child was taken to museums starting at 2. My child has an entire room full of books and toys that encourage his imagination. My child was sent to an NAEYC accredited preschool with a real curriculum. I am fortunate to be able to provide this for my child, but I am one of the lucky. So many parents are alone, working two jobs, and just barely making it. They honestly don't have the resources to do all of the things that we may want kids to have. To assume that teachers can overcome all of that entirely by themselves is unfair to everyone. I hate that no one seems to mention that one of the main ways to improve education in the US is to make a real dent on trying to eliminate poverty. It's too easy to attack tenure, and those "lazy" teachers who get summers off and only work 6 hours a day. Sigh.

  2. Lonna, I agree with every point you make--from the poor quality of the tests
    to the attacks on teachers and everything in between. I just don't know what
    we can do about it. I've written a couple of posts here, letters to our
    newspaper, and most recently a letter to all the families in our
    neighborhood school's attendance area. People are finally starting to
    understand what NCLB is all about, and realizing that test scores and tenure
    are not the problem. But they still look for people to blame. In many
    places--including my neighborhood--the blame gets shifted to those parents
    you talk about who are unable to provide a lot of opportunities for their
    children. I don't know how to get people to see the larger picture--it is
    the policy and the policymakers who need to help end poverty. That is the
    only way to make our country more competitive in the global marketplace--not
    bubble tests and blame. Great points, Lonna. I appreciate you sharing your
    thoughts here.

  3. Thank you for this passionate post. I've recently learned that the Obama administration has a bunch of improvements in the works for the No Child Left Behind program. The improvements are listed in the Department of Education's YouTube video about it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV7od-RU1Jw&feature=channel_video_title

    The change I would like (but I didn't hear them mention) is to NOT tally their scores by "race" (which only reinforces stereotypes), but instead tally their scores by ZIP code - which will identify the neighborhoods to send the government funded tutors.  

  4. I am a poor standardized test taker. Always have been. So awful in fact that I found a work-around when I transferred to my four-year college. I knew that my chances of gaining admission had I applied as a freshman (SAT), the school would've never considered me. Yet, I had an above 4.0 grade point average, was in the honors program, took and passed AP English and AP French, but by all measures "failed" my PSAT. Never even bothered taking the SAT. What was the point? How can this be explained? What I will tell you is that my poor standardized testing scores have fed all kinds of self-doubt in me over the years. These tests kill creativity. They are by no means a predicter of future success. Thank you for writing this post. It's a topic I've struggled with for a long time. I worry for my son who is not a traditional learner. I will not be measuring his success by a test score. That's for sure.

  5. Thank you for sharing that link, Glenn. I watched the video and think that there are definitely a lot of good ideas there. I like the idea of engaging students in critical thinking, measuring student growth instead of test score, and and using a variety of measures to evaluate teachers. I worry about our partisan government passing such a plan, though. Seems like they've had a hard time agreeing on anything lately...

    Your thought about ZIP codes is interesting. There have been many articles about how student test scores mirror their ZIP code. Poverty and achievement definitely correlate, and using our knowledge of which neighborhoods have the most poverty would most likely be an effective way to target schools needing gov.'t assistance. Many educators argue that sending assistance is not enough, though. We need to do something to reduce poverty. It becomes almost like a chicken/egg scenario--which comes first? Furthering one's education reduces poverty, but those in poverty face many obstacles to obtaining education. There are no easy answers. But if the president's new plan gets passed I think we'll be moving toward a much more effective education system. Thanks for your comment!

  6. We've received the letter described in the blog post and decided to stay in our neighborhood school.  I can say it was initially a very bumpy road...our school was mismanaged for several years.  I also felt then and still feel now that the Iowa City school district isn't very interested in hearing what parents have to say in the higher poverty/more diverse schools.  There is still room for improvement.

    I'm a little confused by the discussion about zip codes.  The zip code my mom lives in probably has a small amount of very wealthy people,  a slightly larger amount of very poor people, then mostly middle class..I'm not sure how that is a better predictor of needs.

    I also looked at the zip code map for the town I used to live in...one of the zip codes is drawn in a very odd, sort of gerrymandered way.  I'm not saying zip codes couldn't be used for analysis..but I certainly wouldn't want them to be used as the only tool.

  7. Fleur, I think the new superintendent is listening much more closely than the old one ever did. But his position is still very politicized, and I don't know what how he will respond to that politics. Most of the families in the more diverse schools lack a strong community voice that can be heard over the voices of the more well-to-do families in other neighborhoods.

    I think the ZIP code idea is not just about looking at a map. It would ask officials to look more closely at factors that affect poverty. Not just the amount of money made per household, but property values, crime levels, and business and industry interests in that community (or zip code.) All of those things influence the type of neighborhood around a school, and therefore influence the environment in the school. It would also be a way to address changes in neighborhoods that seem affect changes in schools. 


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