Redefining Success

Written by Scott Schimmel

Through YouSchool’s work with students alongside public high schools, one thing is clear—the love language of school educators is spelled D-A-T-A. As one district leader told me, “If you don’t have data, you don’t exist!”

But what do they measure? Metrics like GPA, school attendance, standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance, along with big ideas like Common Core Standards, dominate the conversations and mental models. Sweat, funding, resources, and success are focused on test scores and results. School districts bend much of what they do towards improving test scores, and to get there they’ve designed advanced systems to support as many students as possible.

There is a growing consensus of well-respected K-12 educators agreeing that the current design of our system is falling short to help the next generation of students thrive as they transition into adulthood. Many voices are emerging to suggest that applying one-size-fits-all approaches to dynamic, multi-dimensional people might be more scalable and efficient, but the strategy falls short of really helping students see the potential of their future, discover their true selves, and march forward with confidence into the right career. Those challenges are now compounded by ridiculously high costs for college and it’s making higher education unattainable and irrelevant for millions.

Valerie Strauss, director of the scathing documentary The Race to Nowhere, talks about the unintended consequences of focusing exclusively on performance on test scores in a Washington Post article: “Even for those students who stick with it, tests degrade the educational experience, fueling performance anxiety and the false impression that academic success is about speed, accuracy and competition.” For all the emphasis on testing, there are millions of kids who are being left behind, and millions more who meet the educational requirements but are missing out on actual learning. 

Sir Ken Robinson famously said in one of his TED talks, “The dropout crisis is just the tip of an iceberg. What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it.”

With so much national attention on the public school system, and so much focus on data derived from standardized testing, we’re noticing the glaring lack of attention spent on helping REAL people understand themselves and grow into self-aware human beings. How is it, that students can go through well over a decade of school, but not know what to do with their lives when they come out on the other side? Why don’t students spend ONE class period, one day, or one week learning about themselves?

We think every student deserves to have the opportunity to discover their full potential.

We hope every student gains the self-awareness they need to understand who they really are, not just who they’re expected to be. We want every student to gain the confidence they’ll need to live authentically true to themselves. And we want every student to gain the life skills to author their own story and charge forward with courage.

When one educator recently said to us, “I can’t see how helping students discover themselves would help us increase graduation rates,” we realized that we have a challenge and an opportunity to redefine the definition of success for the public education system. Our common sense, human-centered approach to helping students discover the best version of themselves and live according to their potential is helping students own their lives, own their education, and get clear about the story they want to tell with their lives.

Success for emerging adults has to be about getting prepared for life- not their GPA, test scores and college admissions.

Our big dream is to become ubiquitous alongside the education system, joining in with many other dynamic, innovative and thoughtful people and programs to help students own their stories and futures. Students need help discovering who they are, what makes them tick, become clear about their challenges and roadblocks, and get glimpses of how to put their passions and strengths to use. They need to see what it looks like to live life well, and have real conversations about real things. They need to be taught that no one else is responsible for their education or their future, and it’s up to them to tell interesting, meaningful stories through their lives. They need help seeing why learning math, science, and english are relevant tools to become who they could at their best.

What would it look like if we were developing a generation of emotionally aware and whole people, equipped with the right answers to the questions, and even more importantly on the right track for them to live their best lives? From valedictorians to students who are barely graduating, everyone deserves a better opportunity to discover who they truly are. Because it’s possible to succeed in school, but fail in life.

Scott Schimmel is the President and Chief Guide of YouSchool. He’s insanely focused on helping young people reach their potential. Connect with him on Twitter @schimmelscott