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Volume XI Issue VI

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Authentic Student Achievement

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

The topic of student achievement continues to dominate the headlines in journals, newspapers, and blogs. The lead sentence in a recent article in the publication Teaching Community states, “In today’s education reform era, student achievement is king.” Writers have approached the issue from almost every vantage point as indicated by the following titles that have appeared in the literature:

  • The Impact of Student Achievement
  • What Drives Student Achievement?
  • Are Computers Really Helping Student Achievement?
  • A Key Factor in Student Achievement
  • Teacher Absences and Student Achievement
  • Using Student Achievement Data Effectively
  • Systematic Approaches to Improve Student Achievement
  • Do Cash Incentives Improve Student Achievement?

So what does all this press really mean? The harsh reality is that student achievement has become synonymous with test scores. Despite protests and frustrations expressed by many educators, including this one, the emphasis on standardized test data continues to drive state and district decisions about how schools should operate and what educators need to do to improve. As I pondered the current emphasis on student achievement, I thought about the many educators I have met who have inspired me with their stories of success as they have worked with students. These incredible stories are not included in school data or state reports and yet they are emblematic of the difficult and extraordinary work that educators do all the time. Achievement has many definitions and the stories below represent just the tip of the iceberg of what happens every day in our schools; each story, therefore, begins with a synonym for achievement.

Christopher was a student in a middle school who had been placed in a program for students with intellectual disabilities. Chris was a friendly and affable young man who worked up to his potential every day. His teachers recognized his work ethic and praised him again and again for his work. Although Chris was not enrolled in mainstream classes, his teachers believed that anyone’s intellectual curiosity could benefit from being in a regular classroom setting. As a result, Chris was placed in a regular science class and his lab partner was a very supportive young man who assisted Chris whenever necessary. Chris was happy and felt truly cared for by his teachers. Chris left his middle school and moved into a vocational setting in high school. Several years later, a car pulled up to the middle school at the end of the school day and out stepped Chris. He proudly went around to all his teachers and showed them his driver’s license, something no one would expect a young man with such limitations to achieve. He told his former teachers that their encouragement had helped him work toward getting his license. This is student achievement.

As a young boy, Danny had been fascinated by stories about the Civil War. He went to battlefields, read books, and visited museums. When he became a teenager, he participated in Civil War battle reenactments. In school, however, he struggled and his scores on standardized tests never met the passing level. In addition, he was not seen by his peers as a very “smart” student. His social studies teacher felt that the gifts each of us have come in many forms. In Danny’s case, he was very knowledgeable about the Civil War, and, subsequently, his teacher arranged for him to attend history classes where he dressed in full Civil War regalia, explained the origin and purpose of each item he brought with him, and shared his knowledge of the period in history. His execution was flawless and he shone brightly during his presentations and received acclaim and acknowledgement from his peers. This is student achievement.

Alejandro came to the United States when he was 14 years old. He spoke no English and enrolled in the English as a Second Language program in his local high school. He made progress, which his teachers acknowledged, but when he was 17, despite the fact that he wanted to remain in school, he felt the need to drop out and get a job to support his family. He began doing construction work and his employer saw him as a quick learner. He was able to acquaint himself with numerous construction skills and eventually started his own handyman business which has flourished. As a young father of two children, he wanted to set the right example for them. He never lost sight of the encouragement his teachers gave him and in 2013 he received his GED diploma. This is student achievement.

Amy was a high school senior who was enrolled in Algebra II for the second time. After encountering difficulty and frustration once again, she concluded that she simply could not learn the content and made the decision to drop out of school. She felt that her overall experience had been good and one day she approached the school principal to tell him of her decision. There was a special program in place at the school where seniors could spend a period of their day tutoring students who needed help in a particular course. Although Amy doubted that the tutoring would help, she agreed to give Algebra II one more try. To her amazement, the one-on-one sessions made a huge difference and she passed the course. Because her principal recognized a need and set up the tutoring program, Amy graduated with her peers and is currently in nursing school. This is student achievement.

Donald was a troubled young man. As an elementary school student he was suspended multiple times for fighting, anger issues, and disrespect shown to his teachers. When he was in fifth grade, a teacher on the staff decided to work with Donald as his mentor. After a shaky start, Donald’s attitude and behavior began to improve. From the outset, his mentor was non-judgmental about Donald’s past. His goal was to look to Donald’s future, both behaviorally and academically. He provided tutoring, took Donald to local sports events, and even invited Donald and his family out to dinner. Slowly Donald began to change since his mentor presented a “different Donald” they both could envision. At one point in their conversations, Donald said, “I’m tired of being the bad guy.” Donald’s mentor followed him to middle and high school never wavering in his support. Whereas Donald was always in danger of failing prior to having a mentor, he kept a “C” average and even made the “B” honor roll when he was a sophomore. In addition to improving his academic performance, Donald is playing on the school’s football team. He is even talking to his mentor about the possibility of college. This is student achievement.

Kate was a serious school-phobic. Her fear of school manifested itself in multiple ways including physical illness, depression, and social withdrawal. Kate’s phobia was caused by a number of issues including poor self-image, peer bullying, and a deteriorating academic performance due to not attending school over time. Her parents tried everything to help their daughter including tough love, outside counseling, and medication, to no avail. Kate’s counselor wisely told her parents that the problem could only be solved in small steps. She agreed to come up with a plan and work with Kate and her family. Since there had been so many false starts and failures with former plans, the family was not very optimistic about Kate’s success. The counselor’s plan included meeting her at her car when her parents drove her to school and inviting her into her office to talk but not attend classes. Although Kate’s willingness to come to school was still spotty, she eventually started to improve by beginning each day in her counselor’s office in a calm and supportive atmosphere. Eventually Kate began attending classes for half of the school day, one class at a time. She could return to her counselor’s office any time she felt anxious. Over time, Kate’s attendance improved. She still had some catch-up work to do academically but with the consistent support of her counselor she was willing to keep trying. This is student achievement.

The suburban middle school social studies department decided that a real-life lesson for early adolescents to learn was the importance of giving back to their community. The department put together a plan that required each student to devise a community-related project in which they could become involved. The involvement had to be non-profit and done simply because it was the right and just thing to do. Plans included providing free babysitting, cleaning up a local park, collecting funds for St. Jude’s Hospital, and working as mentors to elementary students. One plan, which captured the attention of several students, was to volunteer to work in the urban soup kitchen nearby. Their enthusiasm for the project, as well as their awareness of the problem of hunger in their nearby community, resulted in the volunteer work continuing after the community project assignment had been completed. Because of the enthusiasm generated by the participating students, even more of their peers decided to get involved. It has been several years since the volunteer projects were assigned, and it has become an annual tradition in the social studies department at the middle school. The group of original students has continued to volunteer in the downtown soup kitchen; as they have become more aware of the problem of hunger in their own community, they have worked there to help set up food banks to meet the needs of struggling, suburban families as well. This is student achievement.

Emily’s teacher made a decision. Now that the standardized testing season was complete, she wanted to try a new idea. She had read several articles on the importance of encouraging creativity in children so she decided to tap into the imaginations and talents that her students possessed. As a way of reviewing the science content her fifth graders had learned during the year, she explained to them that she wanted to stretch their thinking by challenging them to come up with a creative idea that focused on one of the science concepts. She defined creativity simply as an original idea with high quality. The teacher had read an article that purported that creativity was often diminished if there were too many “rules.” Therefore, she explained to her class that there would be no boundaries, no restrictions, and no rubrics to guide their thinking. They could use any medium of their choice including dance, drama, art, music, writing, and technology. Students could work in pairs or alone. For students who struggled with an idea, the teacher would work with them more closely; for others, she urged, “Let your imaginations run wild.” Emily, who was interested in filmmaking, produced a ten-minute video that included a story with dialogue, special effects, surprise twists, and humor. When she showed it to her classmates, they were transfixed and in awe of her production. As one boy said, “This will probably go viral in no time.” She will likely remember this experience long into adulthood. This is student achievement.

Stephen entered kindergarten filled with wonder and awe. He had little idea what school would be like and, in truth, he was a bit fearful. He was living with his mother who worked two jobs to provide for Stephen and his two siblings. It did not take long for Stephen’s teacher to realize that he was not as prepared to start school as many of the other kindergartners. As the first part of the school year progressed, Stephen began to withdraw, and stopped working all together, as he watched his peers quickly catch on to new learning. Stephen’s teacher readily concluded that Stephen could learn; he simply required more time and attention, not to mention love and affection. With great warmth and kindness, she worked diligently with Stephen in one-on-one situations, and slowly he began to show growth. His teacher had encountered students like Stephen before and long ago had concluded how wrong it was to have a five-year old child feel like a failure at the beginning of his educational life. Although it took great patience and stamina on her part, Stephen made enough progress to be able to move into first grade with his classmates. This is student achievement.

Billy was a very outgoing student in his school’s autism program. He could be seen in the hallways with his teacher stopping other students to ask them where they were going and how they were doing. One of Billy’s difficulties, however, was focusing on his work since he was easily distracted. With the encouragement from his teacher, Billy completed all his work successfully during a two-week period. As a reward, he was recommended for a Student of the Month award. All of the students who were to receive an award assembled in the cafeteria. When Billy’s name was called, he bounded up to the front of the room, vigorously shook his counselor’s hand, and received his certificate from the principal. Other students in the audience gave Billy a round of applause. As he turned around with a huge smile on his face, he raised his arms above his head and shouted to the crowd, “Lunch is on me!” All the students then rose to their feet to give Billy a standing ovation. Several years later, after Billy had left the school, the principal ran into Billy’s mother and she shared that Billy still talks about that special day. This is student achievement.

Each of the above scenarios is true. The one thread that connects all the stories is the caring, determination, open-mindedness, and creative approaches of the adults who work with young people every day. Children will soon forget the standardized tests they took or what scores they achieved. They may not remember how to solve a quadratic equation, all the reasons for the Civil War, or the essential properties of matter. What they will never forget is the way they were made to feel by their teachers, counselors, and administrators. Stories like those told here are duplicated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times over in our schools every day. Sometimes we do not share these kinds of successes with our peers because we do not want to be seen as too self-involved or boastful. However, these situations represent the true backbone of our schools and need to be shared. With great pride and humility, I urge you to tell your stories of authentic student achievement.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Authentic Student Achievement.” Just for the ASKing! June 2014. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2014 by Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.