Throughout my career, I’ve seen major changes in what “success” should be in education. When I started as a high school English teacher, my colleagues and I were told that we needed to make certain that every child completed high school with the basic skills they needed. In the 1970s and 1980s, the media of the day carried daily messages about children who graduated from high school while being “functionally illiterate.” Newspaper story after TV news report after movie-of-the-week all denounced the failed system that allowed such a terrible wastes of children’s potential and of tax payers’ money. Success became defined with not being that teacher who allowed children to be marked for life by not being able to read, write, and compute. And if we could take things even further by teaching beyond basic skills, that was even better evidence that we were successful teachers. While the 70s and 80s push to “go back to the basics” (a popular phrase of the period) provided a clear definition of what success should look like: Students should be able to read, write, and compute; teachers should be able to make certain that they do. As with any simplistic reduction, however, the basics push and its more recent progeny, the hyper-focus on standards, takes half of a truth and weaves a whole plan around it.
That’s to be expected as we’ve worked at being more responsive, inclusive, and meet the democratic ideals we profess. These changes have been critical to move us away from serving a narrow few and into serving the needs of all. But the result is that we no longer have simple answers about what schooling is. And with that muddying has come a clack of clarity on what it takes for schools to be successful. If schools are to be professional training centers, then we’ll have an easy time identifying their success because we can readily measure how many students matriculate the system and go into the workforce. We could also create work-related benchmarks along the way that measure job readiness and skills development. We could test children as they complete levels of the pre-K-12 system and help them make choices about the next level of education. But if schools are to be something else than training for work, we’ll have a much more challenging task.