Success in School vs. Success in Life: An Action Plan to Bridge the Gap

This is the third post in a continuing series by Ellen Perconti, Superintendent of Goldendale School District in Washington State.


What is success? Over the last few months I’ve realized that this question is much more complex than it first appears. In education, we have children’s lives in our hands. As a system, how we define success impacts how students feel about themselves, how they are perceived by the adults in the system, and, ultimately, the trajectory of their lives.

Our District Change Team reviewed The Learner First’s Identifying and Measuring What’s Important Capability Rubric, focusing on the dimension of Collaboratively identifying what success looks like for learners. The team’s rating for our district spanned the rubric’s two lowest levels of progression: “Substantially off Track with some isolated aspects of Getting Started.” Evidence provided included a lack of clarity regarding what success looks like, that success in our schools does not mean success in life, and the disconnect between data points we collect and what we actually value.

The action plan created by the Change Team was to ask students, parents, and staff to define success. Staff responses included:

  • Thinking and solving problems
  • Having a strong emotional bond with at least one adult at school
  • Possessing grit, mental toughness, perseverance, and self-motivation
  • Working effectively as a member of a team

Student responses included:

  • Achieving a measurable goal
  • Getting through the day
  • Having someone who understands me
  • Helping others

Parent responses included:

  • Contentment
  • Meeting goals and connecting work and goal achievement

As we discussed what we measure, how we focus our instruction, and what we allocate time for, the disconnect between the descriptions of success and our system focus was clear. We don’t just have a discrepancy––we have a chasm.

The members of our Change Team aren’t used to having these types of discussions, especially with their superintendent. But by creating a container for the conversations and a non-judgmental environment for dialogue, we are finding ways to grow and to clarify outcomes together. I am seeing building administrators take risks by exploring similar concepts with their school Change Team, using tools such as Community Circles with their staff, and having the hard conversations required to support and challenge growth.

Action starts with the intention of growing with and for others. The Change Team dialogue opened a window to the need for more broadly defining what we mean by success. Now, we get to dive deeper––to design a system that aligns time and resources to our new understanding of success.