Success is a Social Construct

My first post is going to be about something that’s been bouncing around in my head for a long time.  Since I’ve entered into education, I have worked mostly with poor and marginalized students.  And if you follow a similar path to me,  you won’t get very far before you are asked to teach students something called “success skills.”  In fact, there are entire classes dedicated to teaching these skills.  They permeate alternative education, drug rehab, and juvenile correction facilities.  These “skills” include – but are not limited to – note-taking, active listening, goal-setting, time management, emotional intelligence, financial management, stress reduction, self motivation, and (my favorite) personal responsibility.  If a student is struggling in school, these remedial classes are supposed to give them the tools they need to succeed in the rest of their classes. Sounds good, right?

I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with this approach since my first days in education.  It’s not just because the classes are universally despised by students – and trust me, they are – it’s that the course material reads like a totally different language, detached from the reality that our students face every day.  I’ve tried to articulate why this is, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • First off, success is not a “skill.” It’s a social construct. And no matter how many people tell you that you can define your own success, I think we know what it entails:  Success means doing well at school. Success means Getting A Good-Paying Job â„¢.  Success means owning a home. Success means retiring to a sleepy beach town someday.  Success means getting a dog, having some kids. Success means becoming the people with perfect teeth that we see in stock photography for pharmaceutical ads.
  • Unfortunately, the barriers students face in achieving this socially constructed idea of success have almost nothing to do with whether or not they possess the appropriate “skills.”  And there’s mountains of research out there that show this!  If you’re born to a high income household, you are more likely to succeed.  If you are born white, you are more likely to succeed.  If you inherit some level of wealth from your parents, you’re more likely to succeed.  If you are born in a neighborhood that has an unemployment rate of more than 50%, you are less likely to succeed.  If your father is in jail throughout your childhood, you are less likely to succeed.
  • In other words, students are struggling in the educational system because the system has failed them in some way, or – if you’re being cynical – because it wasn’t designed to accommodate them in the first place.  But it doesn’t make any sense to teach them that.  That doesn’t give them a path forward.  Your father got deported? Try some time management.  Your every move is being monitored by police because you’re wearing an GPS ankle bracelet?  Consider improving your emotional intelligence.  Been homeless for the last six months?  Try these financial management tools.  Are you recovering from years of drug addiction?  Here’s some tips on setting a SMART goal.
  • There’s a sort of evangelism that permeates through these kinds of courses and is preached by professionals who push them.  And I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  These kids are poor, they’re lost, they’re struggling.  There’s a strong desire to give them some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel. To give them something that they could just believe in order to not be lost any more. The underlying assumption of these classes is a fundamental trust in the goodness of the structures of our society.  And since that goodness is so often visibly absent, this trust can only be compared to an article of religious faith.  “Students!  We have good news!  America is actually good and you can do whatever you want if you just follow these simple steps!  Just believe in the good news and it will set you free!”
  • In addition to all of this, these classes alter the fundamental definition of what it means to be a teacher. Teachers are not Merchants.  As soon as we start promising students “skills” and “tools” that they need to achieve success, we are doing something much different than encouraging learning. We are promising a product, an end result.  It’s never long before teachers find themselves marketing these classes to students who are struggling or to other educators who are struggling to reach their students.  That’s not what it means to be a teacher – not everything is a commodity.
  • There is no data that backs up the efficacy of classes like this.  There have been studies done at the college level that have shown that developing a sense of community and shared experience can be important for improving student outcomes, and these classes can certainly help with that.  But at the K-12 level, I’ve come to a total dead-end in trying to find research that justifies these basic skills classes.  But it is universally accepted that these classes are both necessary and useful.  If you try and question it, you’ll be laughed out of the room.
  • There’s a pretty clear reason for the lack of research on this topic:  Nobody cares if these classes work.  We are simply delivering the necessary tools to students. They can take it or leave it.  If they don’t take it, if they don’t succeed?  Well, there’s nothing more we can do.  It’s on them.
  • Finally, ask yourself one question:  If you were operating from the assumption that the disparity in outcomes for students who are poor or non-white is a result of cultural differences, what would your plan to help them look like?  If you had a fundamentally Conservative view of personal responsibility, how would you design a class?  Would it involve sitting students down in a class together and telling them how fucked up their outlook is? Would it involve telling them that the problem is in their skillset? Would it involve lecturing them on the value of personal responsibility? Hey, I’d like to welcome you to your success skills course.

I understand why schools offer these kinds of courses, and it makes a level of intuitive sense that is almost impossible to argue with. But the implication is clear.  If you’re struggling in school, if you are having trouble fitting the mold, if an educational environment gives you crushing anxiety, it’s your fault.  There’s something you could have done differently to prevent yourself from getting here.  The school system is great, our justice system makes sense, poverty is not endemic.  It’s you. You need to develop a growth mindset.  You need to be more cooperative.  You need to trust us.  The answers are right around the corner.

2 thoughts on “Success is a Social Construct”

  1. I like the depth of thought here but would like to also hear your thoughts on encouraging student accountability and growth in an education system that encourages minimal effort. (Or possibly a generational culture that is all about taking the path of least resistance.)

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    1. I don’t know – I count at least three premises in this comment that I disagree with at a fundamental level. Which makes me think that maybe this is not so much a question as it is an argument. And that’s fine, I would just prefer that you make your case instead of posing a question that is impossible for me to answer.

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