What measure success?



I have often expressed concern about what I consider to be an over-emphasis on standardised and national testing and the pressure it puts on students to achieve. I explained some reasons for my misgivings here and here and here, for example.

As a parent and a teacher the most important thing I want for my children is for them to be happy. After that I wish for them to be healthy and successful. But what is success? In a recent post I referred to a seventy-five year study conducted by George Vaillant who came to the conclusion that success means leading a happy life and that “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction‘”.

bee 5

Last week I wrote about spelling tests and spelling bees and the effect that doing well, or not, might have upon a learner’s self-esteem as well as attitude to self as a learner, attitude to school, and to learning in general. While writing it I was not aware of an article written by Kate Taylor and published in the New York Times on April 6 2015: At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics.

I discovered the article via a series of stepping stones from Lloyd Lofthouse to  Diane Ravitch to The New York Times.

Taylor opens the article by describing how the struggles of students to learn are made public, for all to see; posted on charts in hallways and reproduced in class newsletters. To see one’s name at the bottom of the list in a red zone, clearly showing that year level expectations have not been reached seems to be rather harsh, and humiliating for the child. Perhaps even more so if the teacher considered the student was just not trying. The teacher, it is reported, had difficulty watching the child take the tests for fear she would be upset by his mistakes. Months later the child scored 90% and was warmly congratulated.

Taylor goes on to say that the school, which has mostly poor black and Hispanic students, outscores many students from more affluent areas with results much higher than average on the state wide tests. I know that everybody loves a winner and that we all want our students to succeed, but at what cost? The article describes the school as being very rigid with a competitive atmosphere that requires strict adherence to rules.

Last week in my post A sprinkling of semicolons I shared an article by Ron Berger who talks about regular students whose “teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.” He says that most of the work comes from students in low-income urban schools.

I suddenly became fearful. Were the students and schools described by Berger similar to those of the Success Academy schools as described in Taylor’s article?

In both cases the students were from poor areas and they achieved remarkable success with most attending college. Austin, as described by Berger, made six drafts of his butterfly drawing before it was considered to be “scientific” enough. I wondered how much, if any, duress he had been under.

The article described Berger as the Chief Program Office of Expeditionary Learning Schools. I followed the link to discover a little more about Expeditionary Schools, checked with Wikipedia and other sites that came up in a Google search, including Open World Learning which says that expeditionary learning (EL) “fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.” It also says that EL schools “promote rigorous and engaging curriculum; active, inquiry-based pedagogy; and a school culture that demands and teaches compassion and good citizenship.  EL schools are based on the Outward Bound model, which starts with the belief that we learn best through experience.

This all sounds wonderful and praise-worthy, and I was feeling a little happier about what I had shared. However, if there’s one thing I have realised after a lifetime involvement in education is that the written statements of any educational institution sound wonderful and praise-worthy. It’s the way the principles are applied in practice that makes the difference.

I didn’t like what I had read about Success Academy Charter Schools in the New York Times, so I thought I’d better check out their website to discover what philosophy and principles guide them. First thing I spotted was a letter from a parent responding to the article in the New York Times! The parent, Polina Bulman, painted a very different picture of the school from that offered in the Times.

Bulman describes the decision-making process she went through in choosing the Success Academy for her five year old daughter. She shares what had concerned her and explains how those concerns had been answered. She describes her daughter’s happiness at school and the progress she is making in all areas of her learning. She has nothing but praise for the school, and concludes her letter, which she shared on Facebook, with these words:

“I was so touched by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. I had a chance to hang out in the hallways, listening to what teachers say to students as they pass by, and watching what teachers and staff members say to one another. I saw so much collaboration and kindness, so much teamwork. The best thing is that as a parent I feel like a part of this team and am proud of it!”

These words are in quite strong contrast to those of the New York Times.

The “Approach to Learning” statement of the Success Academy explains that students are engaged in only 80 minutes of direct instruction each day and that the rest of the time they are engaged in small group instruction and hands on learning.


So what does all this mean?

For one thing, just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a school by its policy statement.

For another, you can’t believe everything you read, even when the source seems trustworthy, you must question the author’s credentials, viewpoint and purpose in writing, “What barrow are they pushing?” (I’m upfront about my biases!)

And mostly, question, question question.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

These are important lessons for readers of any material and of all ages. I have talked about the importance of developing critical literacy in a series of posts about using “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in the classroom. No, definitely not in science lessons, but in lessons to discuss those very points discussed above:

Don’t believe everything you read

Check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing

 And question everything.

While I applaud the end result of Austin’s butterfly drawing, I question what the process may have been. We are not privy to that, though the supportive voices of students in the video do give us an inkling. I hope for the sake of all students that it was one of encouragement and support rather than pressure. Additionally I hope that the report in the New York Times got it all wrong. But if that is so, what is Taylor’s agenda and why would she attack these particular schools so fiercely?

Note: I wrote this article a couple of days ago and upon re-reading it now I have a couple of further thoughts re my advice to check an author’s credentials and purpose in writing. I have not followed my advice. I failed to check out the author of the NY Times article. However I think it is fair to say that Lloyd Lofthouse and Diane Ravitch are both anti the emphasis on standardised testing; and the Success Academy is probably reliant on the tests to measure its “success”.

There is no black and white truth. There are only shades of grey.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

16 thoughts on “What measure success?

  1. Sherri

    Hi Norah, at last. Apologies for taking so long to visit you, but as you will have read in my recent post, I have been side-lined since last week when my brother was taken very ill, very suddenly. He is recovering now, thank goodness, but it was quite the shock at first. So now I wade back in slowly and just wanted to say that I read your post and the points you raised with great interest. It never fails to amaze me how different one’s perceptions are when actually experiencing what is going on than those we read about from another’s. And I’m going to cheat and say that I agree totally with Sarah’s comment, couldn’t put it any better 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Sherri. I’m sorry to hear that your brother has not been well, but pleased to hear that he is recovering. I hope he has continued to make good progress.
      It is definitely true that we each have different ways of looking at things; different perspectives and different expectations. Figuring out those that are telling “the” truth or “our” truth helps to keep life interesting! 🙂


  2. Paula Reed Nancarrow

    There is so much polarization in the states on the charter school versus public school model, and I suspect the NYT article reflects that. The University of Minnesota is absolutely schizophrenic about it, with Joe Nathan and the Center for School Change insisting they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, and the Institute on Race and Poverty (now renamed the “Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity”) insisting they are another form of segregation. I fear that beneath most of these conversations we are not talking about what is best for children and youth – at whatever stage of development – but about the investment bureaucrats and academics have in their chosen models and institutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      That is so true, Paula, I don’t think what is best for the children and their education is ever taken into consideration. It is given lip service, but rarely rated higher than other considerations.


  3. Christy Birmingham

    It’s difficult sometimes to know who to believe. As you say, we need to check the facts of who we quote. But sometimes our emotions get caught up and we speak from the heart and well there in comes the shades of grey 🙂 You are sharing excellent reflections in this blog, Norah! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. TanGental

    It is easy to be seduced by fine sounding words but usually they belie a lack of confidence in their product which should ‘speak for itself’. I can see the point about applying discipline but it is always a concern about those falling off the pace. Interesting stuff

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rachel M

    I don’t particularly like standardised testing either. As a parent of primary school-aged children the most important thing for me is that they enjoy school and make some good friends there. I’m always asking their teachers about friends as this is something they don’t think to mention but it’s important to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Annecdotist

    Another really interesting post, Norah, with lots to get our teeth into. Regarding the George Vaillant study, it’s important to note that the research participants were all men and the sample of under 300 is quite small – although an amazing achievement to be able to follow them over seventy-five years. It was heartening to see how the positive relationship with the mother in childhood had such an impact; I wonder if nowadays when fathers are more involved generally their contribution would also count for more.
    Interesting about those Charter schools and how the public reports of what they do is so different from that parent’s. It can be a real problem when successful programmes are being replicated in other areas, as what makes it work might not be the things that were easy to measure and shout about. (That was certainly often the case in mental health care.) But I also wondered if some of the aspects of the strict regime, unpalatable as they might seem to us, were helpful to children from chaotic backgrounds, particularly in terms of the clarity of what to expect and the consequences of particular behaviours. I’m thinking of some young people who join the military because the order and regularity is something that’s been missing from their lives.
    You’re right to keep highlighting the need for us to be vigilant about looking under the surface below the public face of institutions. But, to an extent, picking and choosing what interests us is something we all do – even or especially in our comments on blog posts!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for such an in-depth comment, Anne. It’s interesting that this post, which caused me some angst, has also elicited some variation in responses. I’m pleased about that too. I wonder sometimes if people are being hones when all comments are nods of agreement.
      As with mental health care, I don’t think with education there is one easy solution; and it is very possible that the routines and boundaries of a “strict” school may be just what is best for some students. I think it is wonderful that students from disadvantaged backgrounds can succeed and have a full range of options and opportunities available to them. I hope the benefits positively impact their lives and not just their test scores.
      That we choose what is of interest to us and what confirms our beliefs is definitely true, I also “like” to think that I may be open to other possibilities should the arguments in their favour be strong enough.
      Thanks for sharing your ideas.


  7. Bec

    Great post, Nor! Very interesting thoughts on success. I was talking to a neighbour who is a teacher, and this teacher explained how there are many happy students who are reading below their age level (early high school). But in the long term, the jobs were you can manage to get by without proficiency in reading are those which are low-paying, meaning these folks perhaps have less opportunities to escape the constant pressure of living on a comparably low income. I wonder if there is a trade-off at some point of pushing kids hard when they are young to get through the hurdles to make sure that as adults they have as close to equal opportunities as is possible? I suppose probably more importantly it’s not a dichotomy, so it’s not really an either/or question though I have phrased it as such.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Norah Post author

      That’s a good point, Bec. Definitely the ability to read is empowering, so the converse is also true. Unfortunately pushing children early on, before they are ready, with techniques that don’t help them become successful at reading don’t help them in the long run. It is great to see opportunities for those who would otherwise be disadvantaged increase, which is your point. Does it matter how much they suffer in childhood if they then have more choices in adulthood? Is that your question? It certainly bears thinking about. Thanks for commenting.


  8. Sarah Brentyn

    Haha! 😀 I’m sorry… This is hilarious: “This all sounds wonderful and praise-worthy… However, if there’s one thing I have realised after a lifetime involvement in education is that the written statements of any educational institution sound wonderful and praise-worthy. It’s the way the principles are applied in practice that makes the difference.” So true!

    I’ve heard a lot of great things about charter schools. Not “Success” charters. Regardless, I didn’t even finish reading that article in the New York Times. O_o

    Liked by 3 people


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