Achievement, Success, and Potential
by Rod Rock, Superintendent of Schools
(here is a link to a YouTube animation of this blog post:
Achievement, success, and potential are interesting terms to me. As educators, policymakers, journalists, students, and parents, we use them often. In so doing, are we aware of the messages sent in the words?
The mid-sized, Clarkston, Michigan school district where I work as the superintendent employs over 900 people. If each of us took an IQ test, I know for certain that I would not achieve the highest score. If we each took a personality assessment, I am sure that I would not be the most outgoing or self-confident. In painting, welding, wallpapering, economics, history, looks, landscaping, tree climbing, or speed reading, I would not finish on top.
I ride my bike almost every day of the year. My goal this year is 7,200 miles. Last year, I rode 3,800 miles and the year before I missed my 1,000 mile goal by 70 miles due to an accident that left me multiple broken bones. If I compared myself to most people who bike in Clarkston, I would not be the fastest, the most able to climb the highest hill, nor the most technically sound. Yet, I feel like I am growing over time in my strength and working toward a healthy, long life.
What if I were to base my success and potential on how well I achieved on an IQ test compared to the 900 people with whom I work? What if I were to base my success and potential for bike riding on the abilities of the most practiced or fastest rider in the community? I don’t imagine I would very often feel good about myself or about my ability to lead a school district.
Our schools are compared often with those in neighboring communities, states, and countries. Our teachers are by law compared to one another. We measure our students constantly, both in school and in their extra-curricular activities, essentially assigning labels via statements like, "You have tremendous potential," "You’re behavior is really challenging," “You’re unmotivated,” and "You are our highest achievers--our best and brightest, the cream of the crop." What do we mean when we say these things? What do our students garner from these words?
As I ride my bike near the arbitrary lines that separate Clarkston from neighboring communities, I think about the kids who live on either side of the lines. Honestly, I have no desire for Clarkston’s kids to do better than the kids on the other side of the line. I do not wish for them to have a lower quality of life or a less excellent education. I do not want them to have fewer opportunities, lower expectations, or higher test scores. I want every child in every community, no matter where the adults draw the boundaries, to have an excellent education and to feel dignified, included, capable, and certain. I want every child in every community to feel that their community believes in them. I want them to see, for themselves and for the future, that an investment today in an excellent education is a sign of each community’s belief in the future; that each child has significant gifts and powerful contributions to make.
“If the primacy of dignity was obvious to everyone, then we would look more often at children [and adults] through the lenses of their own perceptions of themselves. There would be far fewer labels--such as ‘at-risk,’ ‘tough,’ ‘special,’ and ‘disabled’--applied to [people].*
As superintendents, policy makers, parents, educators, journalists, and students, let us more often view children through the lenses of their own self perceptions. Let us look at each child as a beautiful work of art with amazing intelligence and gifts. Let us educate every child in every community as if each is talented and gifted, which is true--if that is the label we assign and uphold; if that is the expectation we set. Let us send the message to each child that, when they work hard, persistently pursue their passions, and posses self-efficacy, they can define for themselves the meaning of the terms achievement, successes, and potential.
*Senge, et. al, 2012, pp. 176 to 183, “Seeing the Learner.”