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Aurora Institute

Redefining Student Success: Organizing Education Systems Around the Knowledge and Skills Students Need to Succeed

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issues: State Policy, Redefine Student Success


Today, conversations are happening in states that explore how to build education systems that prepare young people for success in postsecondary education, the workforce, and citizenship in a civil society. A new definition of success is crucial to drive system improvements that are built around student success. This will involve broadening our concepts for redefining success to be more holistic, examining the culture and structures of learning models through instructional shifts, systems of assessments, expanded pathways and better learning environments connected to communities and to the real world.

In the previous blog, we introduced a vision for the future of education that can prepare all students to succeed. We explored four threshold concepts necessary to understand before we can embrace a vision of a future education system that is student-centered and introduced five issues to tackle to transform the K-12 education system.

This blog will explore the importance of creating definitions of success that reflect communities’ aspirations for their students’ futures — to drive coherence in policies and to improve outcomes. Policymakers can use new definitions of student success that enable student-centered learning systems to:

  • Support student learning;
  • Empower educators to facilitate learning and growth toward a new, more comprehensive definition of success; and
  • Create coherence and alignment in state education systems.

What knowledge and skills will  students need to thrive and succeed in their futures? How could we ensure that high school graduates are prepared for postsecondary success? Basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics are important, but they are no longer sufficient to adequately prepare students for successful futures. Unfortunately, the current system of education is still leaving too many students behind. Across the United States, schools are graduating high school students at higher rates than ever (83%), yet by varying estimates, 37% of first-year college students require remediation.

We must put greater emphasis on engaging our communities in conversations around new definitions of success and what is necessary for redefining student success to include academic competencies, social emotional competencies, skills and dispositions with a holistic focus for the whole child, a well-rounded education, and their futures.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have an unprecedented opportunity to transform K-12 education systems to advance equity and help every student succeed with a new definition of success. ESSA provides states and local communities with an opportunity to rethink their aspirations for the purpose and function of public education.

Why Redefining Student Success is Important

States and communities can help better prepare students for future success in careers and postsecondary education by rethinking what a high school credential should mean.

Today’s youth must be prepared for jobs that have never existed before and to tackle challenges in a more global society. Students will need skills to problem solve, think critically and ensure they are creative, dynamic designers of their futures. There is a need to define success for students more holistically to focus on 21st century skills as well as a strong foundation in knowledge and decision making to achieve success. The emphasis for future readiness will shift to a combination of applied knowledge and higher order skills.

An important concept for policymakers to consider is how a new definition of success could drive coherence in education systems. In other words, shared goals and an understanding of what students need to know and be able to do to graduate ready for postsecondary success could guide the redesign of accountability, systems of assessments, educator workforce development, and other state systems so that they all drive towards the same goals.

Through redefining success, everyone – students, parents, educators and policymakers – can understand what students should know and be able to do upon graduation. District and community stakeholders can be engaged in conversations on outcomes for student learning. A statewide vision and mission for student success can create alignment and coherence between state education systems and support the shift to competency-based education models that ensures all students graduate ready to succeed during and beyond K-12 education.

Results of K-12 Education System with New, Comprehensive Definitions of Student Success

A shared vision for student success could result in:

  • Clear communication and shared expectations with students, parents, community members, and stakeholders on what students should know and be able to do for postsecondary success;
  • High school credentials that are meaningful;
  • Increased coherence across education systems; and,  
  • Aligned state education and workforce systems under a shared vision for student success.

States could consider the following action steps to work with communities and stakeholders to redefine success for all students in the state:

  • Action #1: Encourage local communities to begin their own discussions and strategic design efforts to identify the goals of the education system for the future and to name the knowledge, skills and abilities that students will need to succeed through a profile of a graduate concept.  A state can respect the local context and build collective action by bringing communities together to develop profile of a graduate models, redefine success and determine next steps.
  • Action #2: Establish a taskforce or commission with input from a broad cross-section of diverse stakeholders from communities across the state to analyze findings of the skills, knowledge, and dispositions students need to be successful beyond high school.
  • Action #3: Create a Profile of a Graduate at the state level based on stakeholder input. A stated next step from the new definition of success could be to create coherence and drive redesign efforts around accountability, systems of assessments, and educator development systems.  

One way states can take to redefine student success is to partner with state and community stakeholders to create comprehensive graduate profiles. The next blog post in this series will focus on two states that are redefining success with the Profile of a Graduate.

This is the third article in the Current to Future State series. It explores the ideas from the forthcoming iNACOL report: Current to Future State: Current to Future State: Issues and Action Steps for State Policy to Support Personalized, Competency-Based Learning.

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