Wrestling With Student Achievement

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I recently read of a school district seeking out those who wished to join a task force to help increase “student achievement” in that district. While I commend the district for reaching out to the community to help speak into the issues faced by schools and students in that district, what I take umbrage with is the focus on “student achievement”. What I hear when I read these words is this:

“Come help us figure out how to help students increase their test scores; which will help schools in the district raise their rankings, which will continue to bring in federal dollars for our district.”

There is a lot to unpack in this plea, so bear with me:

One: While the focus on “student achievement” sounds like a worthy goal, it is tied to a larger myth that I think needs to be debunked in education; a myth that states that if we can just get kids through high school and into college, everything will somehow (by dint of their hard work and consumptive capacity) work out. That is, that by attaining a college degree, they will be able to land a more lucrative job that will allow them to purchase enough stuff (or, in reality, more than enough stuff) to be happy. Thus the myth is that educating students towards consumptive ends will somehow alleviate the numbness, alienation, isolation, loneliness, shame, regret, despair, and depression they (we) often feel inside.

The problem, at least as I have encountered it over the past twenty years, is that this myth is as empty as a hollowed-out log. I have worked with brilliant students with straight A GPAs, recognized as National Merit Scholars, on full-ride scholarships to Ivy-league schools who suffered from depression, who cut themselves, who tried to numb the pain of their lives with addictions to drugs and alcohol, who attempted (thankfully, unsuccessfully) to take their own lives in a manner of ways. Therefore, when “student achievement” is tethered to the idea of consumption as the summum bonum (highest good) of life, we might be doing more damage than good even if every student were to succeed. 

Two: Even if we take “student achievement” as a good at face value, have we seen any evidence to suggest that focusing solely on this end gets us the results we desire for our kids, our schools, or our communities? A recent article by Tony Wagner highlights the fact that what we call “high student achievement” or “college readiness” is largely useless both in college and in life. Wagner writes, “Well-intentioned national K-12 education goals are jeopardizing the futures of millions of kids. Our stated goal is making all kids ‘college and career ready.’ The reality, though, is that we’ve turned schools into college prep factories, leaving the vast majority of kids ill-prepared for career or life.” Student achievement as defined by high scores on standardized tests does little to prepare students to face communities torn apart by fatherlessness, racism, gender inequity, aggressive polemics, or numbed indifference to the cries of the oppressed in our culture. It does little to give students hope that their voice matters not just in “preparing for the real world,” but in giving shape to a much better world for us all. It does not give them the tools necessary to be better fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, citizens and neighbors–the real things for which our communities ache.

Three: I propose that “student achievement” should be, at best, a byproduct, not an end. The ancient Greeks taught us that happiness is always elusive when we seek to make it an end; instead, what we should pursue is virtue, and happiness will come as a result of our living lives of integrity and well-being. Thus is it with “student achievement”. Pursuing this as an end is almost always certain to be counter-productive, if not outright implosive. Instead, we should set our aim at helping students attain human flourishing, believing that, by so doing, we might just get whatever we mean by “achievement” as a byproduct (even if we did not see improvement in the “achievement” category, what we might make up in student and communal well-being might just be worth the cost).

So, with all due respect to this school district (and so many others in their same position), perhaps we have got the cart ahead of the horse. If we gain the world of “student achievement” but lose the soul of human and communal flourishing (which I think we are in grave danger of doing), what would it matter, either to the student, the school, the district, or the larger community? If we churned out “high achieving” students who had no moral compass, who lacked a deep sense of well-being, who fed their aching souls with every form of self-destructive behavior in a desperate attempt to be heard, who walked through this world empty and void of a sense of healthy identity, whose lives and marriages and families were broken and fragmented in a constant attempt to work or spend or play or consume their way to fulfillment, who spent their days in frenetic anxiety lest they lose their standard of living, who watch their children grow up influenced much more by the siren calls of the culture rather then the steady wisdom of community elders, who crept along in a spiritual and psychological malaise, what lasting good would we have achieved?

Perhaps it is time to realign our compasses towards a different North Star, to tack our sails towards a better wind, to set our sights upon another shore, to tell a better story for our kids, our schools, and our communities. Perhaps it is time to ask this question (first posed to me by one of my educational mentors), “What would schools look like if we truly loved kids?” Perhaps, in grappling with that question, we would find both meaning and achievement possible to attain.

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