Let’s Expand Schools’ Thinking about Student Success

Feb 16, 2023 11:00:00 AM


Especially in the wake of pandemic school disruption, it’s time to develop a new, more holistic definition of student success, NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Frances Messano argues in her essay for Opportunity America’s new collection, “Unlocking the Future: Toward a New Reform Agenda for K-12 Education.” 

Academics are an important measure of how young people are doing, but we need to value—and measure—how well-supported young people are to reach their full potential.

Messano asks a key question: What if we stopped pitting academics and mental health against each other and created measures that valued the creation of learning environments where mental health is recognized as the foundation for academic success?

We know students need environments where they feel a strong sense of belonging. They need teachers who believe in—and push them to fulfill—their academic potential. They also need wise guidance and navigational support to find the right path to achieve their dreams for life beyond high school. When we create environments that incorporate all these elements, we are setting the stage for students to develop character traits like leadership and fortitude and build a broad range of “durable skills,” like critical thinking and collaboration.  Young people with these traits and skills can thrive no matter what the future throws at them.

Student Success Must Become Academics-Plus

How do we define what student success looks like when we take this wider view? To find such a vision,  Messano turned to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s framework, Foundations for Young Adult Success. Consortium researchers see three components to a broad view of student success: the agency to make choices, the competencies needed to adapt to challenges and a well-integrated identity.

For youth to develop all three of these components requires not just a strong academic foundation, but competence in social-emotional skills, well-supported identity development and a clear plan of action for life beyond high school.

Schools That Build Academics-Plus Success for All Students

A broader definition of student success demands changes in measuring progress, developing educators and even in the fundamental design of schools. That’s a lot to ask, yet strong models are emerging across the country. In her essay, Messano pointed to the NewSchools Venture Fund portfolio, which has so far invested $90 million in more than 130 schools across the country, serving large numbers of Black, Latino and low-income students.

Though there’s plenty of room to individualize, all schools in the portfolio commit to three design principles:

  • They focus on an expanded definition of student success.
  • They hold high expectations for all students and commit to equitable outcomes.
  • They prioritize innovation to meet the needs of today’s young people.

Rethinking accountability and human capital in schools

Making an expanded vision of student success come alive in schools will require changes in how we deploy adults in schools and how we hold them accountable for student outcomes.

While states are fully accustomed to measuring students’ academic growth, they have far less experience tracking young people’s social-emotional competencies and post-graduate plans. 

Measuring SEL is still an emergent field and not ready to be included in the federally-mandated forms of accountability that currently exist, says Messano. 

But states are beginning to explore how student surveys and other measures capturing school climate and SEL can be integrated with academic data to measure equity and improve school quality. For example, in California, the CORE Data Collaborative helps its member districts measure high school readiness, social-emotional skills and school climate.

Given the demands on teachers’ time and the reality that nearly half of today’s public schools have one or more teacher vacancies, Messano argues we can’t broaden the definition of student success without rethinking how we train, deploy and compensate adults working in schools. 

School staffing plans should start with one question: “What is the range of experiences that students need to thrive?” To release the full potential of adults in the community, we’ll need to lower the barriers created by current certification requirements, student-teacher ratios, funding requirements and other limits on non-teachers in the classroom.

While delivering on the promise of an expanded definition of student success is far from certain, Messano reminds us that  many schools are already piloting and implementing new ways of creating successful school experiences for our young people.


Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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