How do Schools Measure Success?

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Tri-County Educational Center (TCEC) is an alternative school for Metro Detroit, serving young people who have either dropped out or been expelled from other school districts. DFS teaching artist Nate Mullen worked with classroom teachers Adelaide Fabiilli and Brooke Leiberman and 9th through 12th grade graphic design students to create a “data mural”, which used drawing, painting, graphic design, student-led research, and mosaic art to explore the question “Can Design Save the World?”

In February, the students brainstormed problems in their community that they wanted to address through graphic design. They determined to focus their research on the obstacles that prevent students from graduating.

After some initial research within the TCEC student population they found that the obstacles included: school curriculum that was not relevant to problems in students lives, excessive testing, and the feeling that students were not valued or recognized for non-academic talents. This led the students to a second phase of research into the question, “how do schools measure success?”

They conducted online research into the primary ways that U.S. schools measure success, with a focus on the history and rationale for standardized testing. They interviewed TCEC principal, Mindy Nathan, about challenges of defining and measuring “success” as an alternative school, which recognizes many other essential capacities for their students’ success beyond the traditional measures of standardized test scores.

From there, students did creative writing activities to develop their own personal standards for success. They illustrated their ideas in the form of life-sized tracings of their bodies, filled-in with symbols and words representing their definitions of success. They compared these personal visualizations and drew out connections and common themes between them in order to create a set of collective standards of success. These class standards were turned into a survey, which students then circulated throughout TCEC, asking their peers to rank the standards in order of importance.

After spending a few days looking at the survey responses, the overwhelming response they found was that “Money” was the most important standard for success according to students. This was a shock and a disappointment to the class. They spent the next week discussing what their survey results meant to them and what it would mean for the data mural.

Students came to the conclusion that, even though our society as a whole may value money as the ultimate indicator of success, the purpose of the graphic design class project should be to communicate messages about the value of knowledge – in all of its different forms – as a standard of success.

Each student chose a different type of knowledge to focus on and developed an icon to represent it. The artist-in-residence worked with the students to synthesize their icons into a mural concept. He contacted a local mosaic artist to consult the class on the creation of a mosaic data mural. The class spent the following three weeks cutting and gluing glass. When it was 80% complete, they were able to show off the work-in-progress for parents, students, and community members at the TCEC Spring Festival. The graphic design students unveiled the final mural to the student body two weeks before the end of the school year, explaining both the process and the purpose behind it.

 Resources & Links

Special Thanks
Gail Kaplan
Merry-Go-round Stained Glass Shop
Soh Suzuki


Bay and Paul Foundations
Knight Arts Challenge
Michigan Council for the Arts and Culture