Redefining Student Achievement

There are all kinds of suggestions for improving student achievement – privatize public schools, increase the number of standardized tests that students take, implement national standards, and enforce no-excuses classroom discipline. None of these practices, however, have made a bit of difference. That is for two reasons. One reason is that the underlying causes of poverty and racial injustice have gone unaddressed, and the other reason is that standardized test scores can never measure achievement and, instead, reliably indicate only one thing: the income of the parents of the test taker.

So the first step in increasing student achievement is to redefine what we mean by achievement.  I recently witnessed something that crystallized for me what real achievement is.

I was at a ceremony in which community service awards were presented to three high school seniors and two adult members of the South Windsor, Connecticut community. A citation was read for each of the high school seniors and for the first of the two adult recipients, and they each gave a speech describing their impressive community service and the impact that service had on their own lives as well as the lives of others.

When it was time for the second adult recipient, Roseanne Sapula, to give her speech, she spoke about how honored she was to receive the award she regarded as prestigious and how she had tried to write a speech but gave up. It was clear that she gave up because her volunteer work with the Monday Night Social Group, a group comprised of 40 special needs individuals of high school age and older, was so close to her heart that it was hard for her to explain her interactions with those in the group in a short speech. She did tell the audience that thinking up new adventures for those young adults and new ways for them to be part of the larger community was her “calling”.

As Roseanne was talking, she looked out in the audience and spotted one of the members of the Monday Night Social Group, Jacob Fialkoff, a 20 year-old whom I later learned has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. She called out to him and asked him a favor. She explained to the audience that Jacob is scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the Connecticut Special Olympics and that he has a beautiful voice. She asked Jacob if he would sing it for all of us.

Jacob hesitated, probably feeling unprepared and that it was too much of a challenge at that moment. Roseanne, aware of his hesitation, asked him again, telling him that she would not be at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics and would love to hear him sing the National Anthem. He still hesitated. Roseanne then asked him if he could do it just for her. He softly said OK.

Jacob stood up and began to sing. I have never heard a more robust and pitch-perfect singing of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Jacob has a singularly beautiful voice. As soon as he began singing, everyone in the audience stood up, faced the flag, put their hands over their hearts, and listened with rapt attention. I looked in the auditorium row behind me to see Jacob.  His face was full of confidence and pride in himself. He was standing tall and singing with all he had in him. The audience was full of people with tears in their eyes as those words, familiar to all of us, took on new meaning because of the magnificence of the singer. It was a moment I will never, ever forget.

Later, I asked Roseanne if Jacob had known that she was going to ask him to sing. She said no. She hadn’t even known he would be there. She explained that he hadn’t known about the award until a few minutes before the ceremony. He had been playing baseball in a field across from the auditorium and heard from someone at the game that Roseanne was receiving an award that night. When the game was called because of rain, he, in his rain-soaked clothes, ran across the street to see her receive her award.

The moment of Jacob singing the national anthem speaks for itself. It speaks about the love Roseanne has for Jacob and the love he has for her, about the confidence Roseanne has in Jacob and about how Jacob did what he, at first, thought he couldn’t do because of that confidence. Jacob did something new for himself. He was transformed by the experience. That is achievement.

Jacob’s singing the National Anthem, unrehearsed and on the spot out of love for the person who asked him, is what is missing in the conversation about increasing student achievement, which has been the illusive national goal since the passing of “No Child Left Behind” in 2001. We have tested and prepared kids for tests. And achievement doesn’t budge. We have declared that urban schools are “failing schools” and opened charter schools.  And achievement doesn’t budge. We have put in place Common Core standards.  And achievement doesn’t budge. We suspend and expel students at high rates, particularly in charter schools. And achievement doesn’t budge. That’s because we have been looking in the wrong places for achievement. We have been looking at standardized tests.

If, instead, we look at achievement as what Jacob did in that auditorium at the awards ceremony and ask our schools to do what Roseanne has done in her long relationship with Jacob, we would write a different story about what students can do.

Roseanne had a clear goal: to help Jacob to be all he could be and to integrate him fully into the community. She respected his gifts and had confidence in him further developing those gifts. She knew what he was capable of and asked him to do more than he asked of himself.  She asked him to show his world what he could do and, in doing that, learn more about his capabilities and more about his possibilities.

We can do the same with our students. With my work as an English teacher, as a district-level curriculum supervisor and evaluator of teachers, and as a curriculum consultant to at-risk schools, I know that it can be done across the board in our schools. Students can be asked to do something they have never done before, something that all of our work with them has prepared them to do, and, from doing it, become aware of their possibilities. Like Jacob singing unrehearsed before the people in his community, our students will be transformed by what they do. And they will delight us.

When Jacob sings “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of the Special Olympics, he will be a different young man than he was before Roseanne asked him to sing at the awards ceremony.  He will know for sure that he has a world full of exciting possibilities before him.

Let’s look to Roseanne and Jacob to help us, as a nation, redefine achievement. By doing that, we will give a future full of possibilities to all of our children.

(Note: Photo is of Roseanne Sapula in the middle, Jacob Fialkoff on the right, and Brenden Prattson, another member of the Monday Night Social Club, on the left.)