Academic Achievement & Excellence: Enough with the rhetoric. Be better.

Jody Britten
5 min readAug 6

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Academic achievement traditionally refers to the level of success that a student has attained throughout their academic pursuits. In reality, our communities have manifested academic achievement in things like grades, test scores, and completion of educational programs.

To make this point quickly and directly, the basic premise of academic achievement is flawed. And the resulting conversation that our schools are only about academic excellence severely cuts their contributions to our communities short.

If we drill down, academic achievement has two pathways. One pathway leads us to talk about excellence and measurement in ways that are more suited for creating a recipe than understanding the learning and growth of actual humans. This is where kids own our systematic failures and have little to no voice for improvement. The second pathway leads us to talk about engagement and agency and pushes us to set the systems-level stage for making great learning experiences a reality for every kid. This is where we work on equity and inclusion, truly finding value in our kids' uniqueness.

What are you cheering for when you get on your soap box and speak about achievement and excellence? If it’s not student engagement, you might want to step down and learn a few things.

Motivation, metacognition, instructional design, and self-regulated learning are among the most influential elements that support learning. The things that influence motivation include (among others) support and encouragement from teachers, parents, and peers. Students are more likely to be motivated to learn if support is continually received (in this element I cannot highlight the importance of community enough). Other factors influencing motivation include a desire to learn and improve, beliefs about a student's capacity to learn, student interest, and presence and continual development of a growth mindset.

Here’s the kicker, metacognition and self-regulated learning (two other oft-cited influences on academic achievement) both are influenced by motivation.

Similarly, cultural factors (family makeup, income, family experiences with education and school, etc.) can influence how students think about their learning and overall potential to thrive.

Inherent to the view that academic achievement is something that we should hang our hat on is the belief that human potential can be measured with universal tests littered with standardized response items. Also inherent is the fact that we have built a system that is only near guaranteed success if you are white and middle class.

Equity factors that impact academic achievement include race/ethnicity, gender, and cultural background. So we pretty much have built the assumed progress of our schools and communities around a term that is inherently inequitable.

Using academic achievement as a measure of progress for our schools or communities is limiting and built on a foundation of bias. It is a construct that, when used, can either place students in a position to be responsible for the growth that they have no control over or set expectations for how our schools and communities can rally around them to ensure they leave school with the skills and tools they need to thrive.

If we look at the conditions necessary for all students to thrive, we know what needs to be done and what systematic factors need to be in place. If we pass policies that go against those factors, we aren’t doing our jobs as stewards of public education. Instead, we promote kids' failure and nearly promise their incapacity to thrive.

When I see school boards do things that negate progress in supporting equity, make rules that remove agency (from a population of students that were born to be free agents), and dismiss decades of scientific research (instead falling victim to the political pandering of actors from the 1980s selling lies to easily-swayed adults) I know we are in a downward spiral towards failure.

So what policies should you look for? What will ensure that all of our kids are set up to thrive? Here’s what the data says. Note that policies are governance, not management, and create the systems in which management can respond to data-informed goals.

  1. Policies should promote collaboration, community training, and coordinated communication that empowers teachers to create learning environments that foster intrinsic motivation and a love of learning. Those training and communication plans should include practices that can be used across community stakeholder groups to develop student motivation.
  2. Policies should promote budgets, hiring, and investments that result in learning experiences, assessment practices (especially those formative elements that build from authentic, engaging project work), integrated student goal setting, and feedback loops that help schools develop long-term employability skills with the foundation of self-regulated learning.
  3. Policies should seek to identify data sources that measure student engagement, emphasizing continually demonstrating both cognitively and behaviorally engaged learners showing equitable engagement across student populations. These data sources should include evidence that leaders are providing all students with personalized learning opportunities that are challenging and personally rewarding.
  4. Policies should set the stage for educators and leaders to help students become more aware of their own thinking and learning processes. For example, budgets and policies should align to ensure professional development opportunities for educators and leaders to learn how to effectively develop metacognitive skills and ensure that students have resources (including learning coaches, peer tutors, etc.) that can help develop metacognitive awareness and self-regulated learning skills (including appropriate technologies).
  5. Policies should support, document, and align data sources to include practices that promote the design of learning experiences that engage students and encourage mastery of new skills through personally relevant applications.
  6. Policies should actively communicate, educate, and develop community commitments to young people ensuring that whole communities (not just schools) can come together to provide students with the support they need to succeed in school.
  7. Policies should proactively address equity factors, building opportunities for data to inform improvements around practices that enable all learners to thrive regardless of socioeconomic status, race, and gender. These practices should demonstrate through aligned data sets that all students have an equal opportunity to participate, feel valued, and succeed in their unique community-based schools.

We can create policies that promote learning environments where all students can thrive. It takes commitment and trust, and belief in our schools. Or we can develop policies that set our kids up to fail. Let’s not be that kind of community. When our kids fail, we all fail. We know what it takes to succeed today and tomorrow.

Let’s get out of the way and make it happen.

Remember what Ira Socol has said in the past, “Accomplishment beats achievement every day.” Set the stage for accomplished learners, and stop with the achievement and excellent dialogue. It kind of makes you look like a jerk.

The only solution is to be better. Our kids deserve it.

Jody is a thought leader, advisor, and thought leader advancing global access to quality learning experiences. Keep up with her work at jodybritten.com.

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Jody Britten

fierce mom, constant learner, writer, speaker, researcher, thinker, designer, gadget queen, advocate for learning that matters & public ed, lead with my actions