"Success at Any Cost"

Chris McNutt
February 6, 2024
Our narrow definition of "success" is dehumanizing young people and educators alike.
A close look inside the classroom door suggests that in the past 150 years we have come to think, perhaps without realizing it, that the purpose of education is to make money. Though going to school hugely increases a child’s chance of earning a decent wage in adulthood, that fact need not, and should not, define our thinking about what and how children should learn. Decent wages may be a very desirable outcome of attending school. But that doesn’t mean that money should be the goal of education or the measure of its success. Of course, the skeptic might ask what harm there is in designating money as the purpose of school. As it turns out, plenty.

Susan Engel, The End of the Rainbow, How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools

Every day millions of young people are ushered through classrooms, told to listen, complete assignments, and score well on tests. All of this is to successfully graduate to high-ranking colleges and well-paying careers. Despite the ever-growing workload, most students grin and bear each day hoping that it will pay off in the long run.

Despite numerous changes in teaching methods and educational technology, the average classroom looks relatively similar to one of twenty, thirty, forty years ago. There’s a comforting familiarity in walking through a school’s hallways, peeking into doors and seeing students work through assignments together. Yet something feels off. More and more, we see students storming out of class in tears, putting their heads down in woeful loathing, and confronting each other in shouting matches. Unlike decades past, teachers are alarmed at the state of student well-being – with anxiety, depression, and self-loathing more apparent than ever before. 

There are increasingly hostile threats to our world: a growing climate disaster, rising authoritarianism, silencing of LGTBQIA+ people, white supremacy, fortifying the carceral state, and more. Schooling tends to operate in a vacuum to the outside world. According to the APA’s 2022 Stress in America survey, the majority of Americans believe that their children are not going to inherit a better world than they did. The majority of young people aged 18-34 say that they are completely overwhelmed by stress most days. And in the same survey which included high schoolers in 2018, over ninety percent of respondents experienced stress with over half feeling depressed, lacking energy or motivation. (It’s worth noting that this is prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which only made these problems worse.)

Despite all this, American classrooms still tow the line of “get information, do assignments, achieve high test scores.” Well-being has been put on the back burner in the pursuit of test scores, achievement, and “college and career readiness.” What would our schools look like if we built a better world…but test scores didn’t increase? Or what if high-stakes testing also included student survey data on their social-emotional health? How would our priorities shift?

It isn’t that any of these problems are new, so much that the system is collapsing in on itself after years of a “success at any cost” mentality. Recent decades have seen schools raise the stakes in an increasingly competitive and inequitable society. Politicians and business leaders are concerned about the United States’ education system versus the rest of the world, and families want their children to lead successful lives. Now, even preschools are beginning to label themselves “college ready” so that three-year-olds will somehow have a one up on their peers. 

At What Cost?

I was always horrified by how many students crammed their schedules full of AP courses, sports, musical performances, clubs, and volunteering. They were working longer hours than me – a burned out and always-tired teacher. It was only a matter of time before they collapsed and lost all sense of meaning. After all, what happens when they take a second, pause, and reflect on who they are and who they want to be? 

A 2013 research study indicated that students with these schedules felt extreme stress, with two-thirds turning to drugs and alcohol to cope. Similarly, a survey of 4,317 students in “elite schools”, who had over three hours of homework a night, reported academic stress leading to notable physical health problems. Striving for economic opportunity came at the cost of well-being. This is echoed by hundreds of focus groups that Human Restoration Project has done over the years, finding young people signing up for a slew of AP courses, drowning themselves in extracurricular activities (not necessarily for pleasure…but for resume building), and getting very, very little sleep.

Adding these “higher standards” is part of a movement toward college and career readiness. By adding more guided instruction, additional homework, more testing, and increased in-and-out of school requirements for K-12 graduation, the idea is that we’ll create much more learned individuals who’ll succeed in the future. We’ve done the former well. Social psychologist Sara Konrath finds that young people today are more intelligent, more empathetic, and have greater self-control. But in spite of this, she writes,

…[young people] are trying very hard to meet the increasing expectations for success in our society, only to find themselves exhausted, frustrated at the doors slamming in their faces, and minimizing their accomplishments, since they don’t seem to pay off. Burnout is an understandable response to an untenable situation: It is a forced halt to the rat race.

It’s worth pausing and noting what we mean by “success.” Virtually all school mission statements are a variation of “making students ready for tomorrow” through “succeeding in college, career, and life.” Schools are mandated to track test scores and graduation rates, with many tracking college and career retention data. This academic and economic lens mirrors what older students tell us in our focus groups: they want to be able to take care of themselves and their family. There’s a deep-seeded fear that after all of this, they’ll fall through the cracks. They’re living on the promise that all of this work now will pay off in the long run.

But the fact is that all of the time, energy, and resources schools spend to prepare students for higher education and careers is not working that well. Despite our best intentions, slamming young people with mountains of rigorous work doesn’t actually mean they’ll be more successful. A 2015 Pell Institute study found that 77% of high-income students graduated from college and compared to only 9% of low-income students. The US Department of Education finds that 65% of enrolled white students graduate within 6 years compared to 46% of Black students. As of December 2021, 41% of recent college graduates were unemployed. 34% did not have any plans for after graduation.

Of the nearly half of young people who did not attend college, they face stagnating wage growth and high unemployment rates. Many are “disconnected”, having no career outlook or educational opportunities: finding themselves without any economic opportunity. This is especially true in deindustrialized areas such as Detroit and Philadelphia, but is quickly transitioning to more traditional white-collar jobs due to the alarming applications of AI.

Therefore, if we define success as “succeeding in college, career, and life”, the increased rigor of school is not working. And as I mentioned earlier, the world is on fire – literally and figuratively. Dwelling on “doomerism” isn’t healthy either. We can create successful outcomes for kids – it’s actually really simple (but not easy). 

First, Disrupt the Narrative

There is no point to economic success if it comes at the expense of well-being. Raising a generation of unhappy, depressed adults who mindlessly go through their 9-5 job isn’t doing us any favors – and it’s likely the reason why so much of the world is falling apart. Instead, we need to redefine our terms.

Schools are increasingly connected to the world of work. People are increasingly connected to the world of work. Dating back to America’s roots in “protestant work ethic”, our culture is obsessed with the idea that our value is determined by our economic capacity. Jennifer Sherman, a sociologist at Washington State University, conducted a series of interviews in a small Northern California town whose lumber mill had just closed down. She’d assumed that people would talk about how this impacted their families. Instead, they just spoke about work ethic. In her study, she shifted to document how much people internalize their own work ethic – and judge others. Those who lost their jobs at the mill felt depression, shame, and self-hatred. Their value was entirely attached to economic production. 

This reflects America’s shift to neoliberal capitalism – or the embracing of free market, hyper monetary-driven solutions that impact all areas of our lives. This means that money is not just a means to an end, but a governing part of our lives that we construct our identity around. The radical shift toward increasingly neoliberal policies in the past half-century has massively contributed to the current state of college and career programming. 

Rather than question the system itself – because after all, college and career are central to economic success, we instead tinker at the edges to improve what must be a perfectly working system. Typically, this means that studies will examine minor ways to improve schooling at the edges: slightly increasing test scores, homework completion rates, or school attendance. Then, corporations will jump at the lucrative opportunity of providing schools with simple solutions to complex problems. Over time, these solutions will be ineffective (or not enough) and will become fads. Because we are not making a large enough difference to see systemic change, these solutions wax and wane as their opportunity cost for implementation isn’t worth it. As a result, educators become burned out with those trying to make a difference, as they’ve seen these fads come and go.

Overtime, there is a relative comfort in just maintaining the status quo. Nothing fundamentally changes. Educators are expected to prepare students for college and career readiness through rigorous testing and homework and that’s the end of the discussion. To note, it’s not educators’ fault that this is happening. The system is designed to do exactly what it’s doing: it is creating the best possible version of itself. There’s a financial reward and comfort in simply doing what one is told. Doubling down on typical school practices of forcing student compliance and adding additional work masquerades itself as a valuable practice that keeps kids quiet and makes them learn more.

Disrupting the system and changing the values proposition is to go against the grain and confront it – which could result in being fired or burning the candle at both ends and resigning. Therefore, there’s not that many people left fighting to make change, and those who are find themselves with fewer and fewer allies. It’s really hard to make these changes because we’re going beyond just the edges – we’re looking at the core.

As an example, consider mindfulness practices. A relatively recent buzzword, mindfulness is typically embedded into a social-emotional learning curriculum that is sold to schools as a way to help students manage their emotions day-to-day. It’s incorporated as yoga sessions, reflection activities, or breathing exercises. On its face, it’s a good place to start: kids are learning how to manage their emotions in a healthy way. The problem is that mindfulness curriculums are in response to the problems that school creates itself – many schools literally only use these practices during high-stakes standardized testing season as they know how anxious students are.

Pictured: A graph showing money transitioning from mindfulness activity curricula, students feeling slightly better, and school causing anxiety (in a loop). On the outside rests standardized testing, AP, IB, and prep programs, isolated quiet environments, and high stakes grading.

The academic-industrial complex has created a problem that is being solved by their own proprietary solution. Rather than looking at the underlying system and solving that, it’s tinkering around the edges to eek out some extra percentage points on a test and perhaps make a few more kids not barf while filling out multiple choice questions.

Indeed, the act of relationship-building itself has been co-opted toward neoliberal tendencies. We’ve narrowly defined success in a way that impacts the way we understand and view school: what is working, what isn’t working, and what problems are worth solving. If testing had no value whatsoever, how would we examine a school schedule, grading, or homework? Every educator knows that relationships are the central tenet of learning. Kids won’t learn unless they’re accepted by their teacher and peers. They want to feel cared for and loved. Almost all teachers cherish the interactions they have with young people – after all, the job doesn’t pay that much and there’s a bunch of shit to deal with, but at least the kids are fun to be around.

But that college career readiness business weasels its way into this too. We see the use of “relationship tactics” – such as the “ten for ten rule” where educators are encouraged to talk to ten different students for ten minutes each day – as an inauthentic way to develop connections. The issue isn’t in reaching out to students and making them valued, but that these relationships are built on “getting results.” When we approach relationship building through the lens of academic or economic achievement, it invalidates true meaningful human connections. It becomes a facade of using persuasion and charisma to make the “line go up” as opposed to simply loving and caring about each other.

The neoliberal component of relationship building encourages breadth over depth. It’s perfectly normal and human to not connect with every single kid in every single classroom. That’s okay. It’s better to have authentic, meaningful relationships with kids who relate to us – letting other teachers have similar connections with their own groups – than turn school into a shallow, corporate networking program.

In America the Anxious, journalist Ruth Whippman chronicled her experience in corporate happiness programs across the United States. What she found was that social interaction, a greater sense of community, and shared common causes are being whisked away by our job-centered culture. The same could be said for schools, where socialization is highly restricted, community is centered on maintaining control and “positive behaviors” (PBIS), and one’s overall sense of self-worth is based on individualized academic achievement. One’s corporate financial identity is the same as one’s school academic identity. Whippman writes,

Community may be the key to happiness, but a manufactured community with financial motives lurking behind every interaction is not the same as a real, organic community, nurtured from genuine human empathy.

Again, the corporate narrative of “success at any cost” is making us twist a fundamental component of school: relationship-building, and centering it on increasing productivity. This isn’t a conspiracy – our neoliberal system has ingrained itself into the purpose of school. It has made us normalize and judge students as ignorant, lazy, and unwilling to learn. As psychologist and author of Laziness Does Not Exist Devon Prince explains, 

Laziness is usually a warning sign from our bodies and our minds that something is not working…The human body is so incredible at signaling when it needs something. But we have all learned to ignore those signals as much as possible because they're a threat to our productivity and our focus at work.

The issue doesn’t lie with the students, but with the systems of schooling itself.

Second, Recognize Systemic Injustice

This twisting of human values toward the market is a fundamental flaw in how we view classrooms across the westernized world. Until we disrupt that narrative and change the system, there is no way to add additional programs to solve these problems. Educational critic and critical pedagogue Henry Giroux stated,

[Neoliberalism] normalises a culture of cruelty, because it suggests that compassion, worrying about others or social justice are undesirable values because they get in the way of the market. There is no notion of responsibility that suggests that you have to connect your experience of the market with the social cost. In short, it is an ideology, not just a series of economic structures, and apart from feudalism, it is probably the strongest ideology that we have seen.

Underlying this neoliberal education system is what author and social critic bell hooks frequently referred to as an imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal culture. When schools uphold a neoliberal system, they’re implicitly holding up ideas that discriminate on race, class, and gender. Schools are more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s following the Civil Rights Act. The clearest determination for one’s economic success is still primarily determined by one’s zip code. 

And as more and more people recognize these underlying problems within the neoliberal framework, pushback has come through intimidation of teachers, book bannings, culture war driven laws, and a general rising authoritarianism throughout the entire world. Across the United States, many districts are embracing “empty pedagogy”, or eliminating all teacher autonomy, instead opting for “back to basics” rote learning taught through a pre-scripted curriculum. These schools can cheaply employ underqualified and untrained teachers

Pictured: A charter comparing an “empty pedagogy” (scripted curriculums) to progressive education (complex, multiple perspectives).

Changing the systems of school is swept up in the culture war to maintain the interests of the status quo and uphold a neoliberal, market-driven economy. Those who are quick to defend quiet, compliance-driven classrooms that preach success by “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” are simultaneously those who don’t believe in systemic racism, don’t believe in trans youth, and think teachers are “talking about sex” to kids. Ultimately, they believe the system is working just fine – it worked for them, and now other people are trying to change that.

The ridiculous culture war narrative distracts us from being able to make systemic shifts, but being aware of its narratives is necessary to combat attacks against the movement. Once one understands where these narratives come from, it helps combat the illusion of a serious concern for business as usual. Sandwiched between "Woke Culture Infiltrates Edmonds School District" and "Lobbying for Deception: The Hidden Collaboration between the AFT & CDC", Doug Lemov appeared on conservative education website The Chalkboard Review. Doug Lemov is the founder of the highly profitable Teach Like a Champion – a field guide for teachers to focus on basic skills and keeping all kids on task.

Lemov talks about many surface-level, rational ideas: teachers need practical tools for the classroom, reading is valuable, and relationships are important. Then, he quickly moves into undertones of the current conservative cultural zeitgeist. He talks about social engineering of the new generation (who just won't get off their phones!), how upper middle class children (and their lawyer parents) are entitled and refuse to cooperate, how children refuse to sacrifice for the collective good, and how no one reads anymore. Meanwhile, the host Tony Kinnett talks about the "fragility" of today's generation. (Kinnett made recent fame by "leaking" a Google Drive folder on “racial equity priorities” at Indianapolis Public Schools. from his employer, Indianapolis public schools. He was locked out of his account and began making the rounds on FOX News.)

This isn't to say that all teachers who teach business as usual or read Teach Like a Champion are racist, but that the blind adherence to these techniques, and upholding of neoliberalism, will result in systemic outcomes that are racist. If we ignore equity and just "teach", we are ostensibly accepting that ideology. To remain neutral is to accept this status quo, dooming students to a twisted reality rooted in economic greed, purposeless action, and an ever-threatening planet.

Third, Embrace the Chaos of Something New

Philosopher Franco Berardi wrote, "the best thing to do is to make friends with chaos.” Simply fighting back with endless critique of the dangers of a “success at any cost” mentality won’t lead to change. After all, we live in a world where more than 88,125 climate change studies have been conducted and 99.9% of scientists have agreed that climate change is real, yet we still are endlessly debating on if it is real – and not much is being done about it. We have to create opportunities – situated within our own power and privilege – to start enacting changes to the classroom right now. That means letting go of safe, assuring lesson plans as usual and disrupting the narrative.

The good news is that the emperor has no clothes. More often than not, educators have much more freedom than they realize. And surely, they have much more power than they realize. Positive grassroots movements toward better classrooms starts with the simple act of implementing more purposeful reflection-based activities. At the onset, that sounds really easy – but it also means cutting a lot of the academic content that was in its place. Slowing down the curriculum equates to covering less curriculum. That’s a radical act.

Teaching in this way drops the illusion that what we’re teaching actually is translating to kids. I’d argue that most teachers know that much of their content isn’t worthwhile – but the act of learning it is. This assumes that students are learning it in the first place. 

Developmental psychologist Susan Engel used to task teachers-in-training to observe classrooms through a school and write down examples of “engaged students.” Time and time again, they would come back with notes stating “students were sitting up straight”, “they were quiet”, “they had their eyes on the teacher.” Engel corrected them: this isn’t engagement, it’s compliance. Engaging content is centered around what students are inherently interested in. 

Talking about shifting to more purposeful curriculums is frustrating due to how common sense it is. Quite simply, psychologist William Damon found that to help students find their purpose in life, give them opportunities to talk and reflect on their lives, and engage them on things that interest them. That’s it.

Therefore, the solution to this system isn’t a new prescribed program or an overhaul to all the subject areas. It’s shifting our values system to that of well-being over economic success.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest that teachers who subscribe to dominant methods are nefarious or terrible people. Rather, it is to recognize that neoliberalism is our culture — and with that culture people naturally want to improve their status. Many don’t even recognize that the things they’re doing are harmful, or are willing to accept that what works best for them may not work best for others. By building a positive culture of meaningful change with young people, we can bring in jaded educators. We have the experience, wherewithal, and authority to enact disobedient measures to craft sustainable classrooms that inch ever closer toward human-centered classrooms. We must question the dominant framework and push back. Together — we can realize that change.

Just Starting

Values Sorting* (Adopted from the GoodWork Project)

A value sort can help young people navigate what’s important to them, specifically when it comes to relationships and career opportunities.

  1. Start by arranging a stack of 30 values notecards, cut scrap paper, or virtual slides per student, available at (bitly link to be added)
  2. For each, have students think about an activity that’s important to them, something that they might consider “work.” Have them consider how they might go about doing this activity (e.g. lacrosse, student governance, acting, etc.)
  3. Have students arrange these values in terms of relative importance to themselves. They must follow this grid layout.
Pictured: A chart with slots for values to be sorted. On the “least” and “most” sections, there are fewer possible slots. The “neutral” middle slot has the most.
  1. Take a picture of the existing values sort, then deconstruct back into a stack of cards.
  2. Now, have students partner or form small groups. Preferably, this would be with someone a student knows well (a peer, family member). Have students talk to one another for a set, longer amount of time and describe their feelings on each of the values.
  3. Then, have their peers sort their values in the same way as the previous step.

Afterwards, have peers or small groups consider:

And as a class, consider:

Solidifying Next Steps

Identifying Behaviorism

The prevalence of behaviorism: that students can be conditioned through conditioning (rewards and punishments) without care for their feelings, relationships, or values, is commonplace across teacher training programs and professional development. Quickly identifying a behaviorist approach vs. its many antecedents (e.g. trauma-informed care, restorative practices, progressive education) helps us deconstruct our own pedagogical biases and dismiss those who would promote anti-student policies.

Consider the following and reflect on how these may contribute to behaviorist thinking:

Behaviorist Teacher Practices

Remove the Language of Work

We must be careful of sending students through a “Social Darwinist Sorting Machine” – talking about how certain students will achieve more or less based on their career choices or interests. We shouldn’t build systems of oppression within our classrooms to mirror systems of oppression students may face as adult workers. There’s no point in assigning a ton of work, forcing compliance, or talking down to students because a corporation may do the same. After all, why are we okay with this being normalized? A student who is brought up in an environment where they are finding themselves, have a voice in what they’re doing, and care about those around them will build a better working society.

What’s Next?

Recognizing the Myth of Meritocracy

There is a cornerstone belief that the harder one works, the more successful they will be. Ingrained into our schooling system is an “earn A’s, get a degree, earn a well-paying job” mantra. Yet this is not necessarily the case. The meritocracy – the belief that anyone regardless of background or status can join the upper echelons of society through hard work and determination – has guided Western civilization since the Industrial Revolution. Instead of aristocrats, kings, and queens dominating by birthright, individuals have the ability to take matters into their own hands and build a better future for themselves.

Yet, as professor Daniel Markovits writes in The Meritocracy Trap, meritocracy advances, its achievements impose a new and oppressive hierarchy, unrecognizable even a generation ago. An unprecedented and distinctively meritocratic inequality tarnishes a new gilded age. Elites increasingly monopolize not just income, wealth, and power, but also industry, public honor, and private esteem. Meritocracy comprehensively excludes the middle class from social and economic advantage, and at the same time conscripts its elite into a ruinous contest to preserve caste. Meritocratic inequality—the growing gap between the rich and the rest—bends America to an ominous arc.

Education itself is not a way out of poverty. Although there are plenty of examples of individuals “picking themselves up by their bootstraps” and rising out of poverty, classrooms are not a systemic solution to poverty alone. Only 6% of the lowest earners in society make it to the top 20% of earners. Only 11% make it to the top 40%. The amount of money that a young person can be expected to earn later in life is highly proportionate to where they started. This is at a time where schools are continually funded for new STEM initiatives, college and career ready curriculums, coding bootcamps, and more. The economy is already failing many college graduates, with college debt and tuition, as well as inequity, at an all time high.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t push every learner to be successful in the classroom. But the purpose of education should not be to just “get ahead” and obtain success at the expense of others. Nor should it be to “escape” one’s community toward the middle- or upper- class. We should be educating young people to change the world and redefine success. What if we built spaces that promoted cooperation, compassion, care, and restoration? What if we stopped talking about a meritocracy: competitive advantage, knowledge for money & power, and individual gain?

Changing classroom priorities isn’t just to ensure that all learners can effectively engage in their classrooms – it’s to build a world that models caring communities. By demonstrating and building this world, young people will grow older and act to change the world. It isn’t just about test scores or academic achievement – it’s about creating just, equitable spaces that recognize the failures of the system around them, fighting to make change. We must branch out beyond the classroom to fight for more just communities that lessen or eliminate poverty (such as universal health care, free college, and/or a universal basic income). An individual teacher or school cannot make all these changes on their own.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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