Defining Student Success: The Role of School and Culture

Defining Student Success: The Role of School and Culture

Defining Student Success: The Role of School and Culture

Defining Student Success: The Role of School and Culture


The key to success, our culture tells us, is a combination of talent and hard work. Why then, do high schools that supposedly subscribe to this view send students to college at such dramatically different rates? Why do students from one school succeed while students from another struggle? To the usual answer--an imbalance in resources--this book adds a far more subtle and complicated explanation. Defining Student Success shows how different schools foster dissimilar and sometimes conflicting ideas about what it takes to succeed--ideas that do more to preserve the status quo than to promote upward mobility.

Lisa Nunn's study of three public high schools reveals how students' beliefs about their own success are shaped by their particular school environment and reinforced by curriculum and teaching practices. While American culture broadly defines success as a product of hard work or talent (at school, intelligence is the talent that matters most), Nunn shows that each school refines and adapts this American cultural wisdom in its own distinct way--reflecting the sensibilities and concerns of the people who inhabit each school. While one school fosters the belief that effort is all it takes to succeed, another fosters the belief that hard work will only get you so far because you have to be smart enough to master course concepts. Ultimately, Nunn argues that these school-level adaptations of cultural ideas about success become invisible advantages and disadvantages for students' college-going futures. Some schools' definitions of success match seamlessly with elite college admissions' definition of the ideal college applicant, while others more closely align with the expectations of middle or low-tier institutions of higher education.

With its insights into the transmission of ideas of success from society to school to student, this provocative work should prompt a reevaluation of the culture of secondary education. Only with a thorough understanding of this process will we ever find more consistent means of inculcating success, by any measure.


Deshawn, a high school freshman, sits with me for an interview during his lunch break. It’s a Tuesday in January, but Deshawn is not at school. Instead, he is at his internship, where he works from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, busing tables, running the cash register, and learning the ropes of food service at a popular lunch café in a busy suburban shopping and business district. Deshawn hopes to become a chef one day, and he sees this internship as a good step toward attaining his dream career.

His school, a place I call Alternative High, not only supports balancing school with internship work but actually mandates it. School days are scheduled on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only. Students are required to spend time in the world of work (usually unpaid) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The goal of the internship program is to allow students to gain real-world knowledge and experience so that after graduation they have a clearer sense of what college and career paths they might like to pursue. In addition, they can tout their internship experience on their résumés when they apply for jobs.

From Deshawn’s perspective, the arrangement is working well. As a teenager in a low-income, single-parent home, he certainly appreciates the free lunches after his shift. But he also takes his job experience seriously. He is confident that high school and job success go hand in hand, and he sees his internship as part of that relationship. “I want to become an executive chef,” he tells me, “so that I can really do what I like. And so at home, I just try a lot of different things. I don’t really go out [to eat in restaurants] because of money. Money issues, you know? I don’t really go out there. But if it was like a box or something, I can do it. You know, I am learning from boxes. And I try to do as much of the cooking as I can because I am trying to determine if I do want to be an executive chef or not, or a pastry chef. You never know.”

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