Guest opinion: How do we define success for high school students?


The recent discussions surrounding the educational pressures in Palo Alto beg an important question: What does a successful student look like in our community? How do we define success in high school, and does that answer differ from how we should be defining it for our students?

The education system was developed to prepare our kids for life in the real world. It is meant to equip our students with the skills they need to find their success. However, when we look at how we have defined success for our students, and how success is defined in the real world, there is a vast discrepancy that leaves our students unprepared.

In her guest opinion "The sorrows of young Palo Altans," Palo Alto High School student Carolyn Walworth exposed this disconnect between the professional world and the education system. She states that she and her high school peers are "lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning."

In society, collaboration, empathy, teamwork and innovation are highly valued, yet Carolyn and her peers are conditioned to believe the opposite. We Palo Altans live in a community where our motto could arguably be "think different," yet we have allowed our education system to discourage imperfect thinking.

Global thought leaders and people we hold in high regard professionally, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Oprah, have all had their opinions on what it means to be successful. One common theme is failure and the resulting growth opportunities. According to Elon Musk, "Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough." Richard Branson even has a list of his top 10 quotes on failure.

When failure is a growth opportunity and a highly supported feat in the real world, why is it punished in high school and college? Our students fear failure and consider it to be avoided at all costs. How do we expect our kids to grow if they are conditioned to think that perfection is the route to success?

The gap between these two definitions of success is widening. I hear painful stories from students I work with about their "transition to the real world." They're told, "Get out there," "Show your value," and "Find your path," but not taught how to actually do it. Students discuss their struggle with networking due to their fear of rejection, their inability to understand or communicate their value and their confusion regarding their interests. Students share their feelings of helplessness, of being ill-prepared for life after school, and of anxiety that comes from not knowing. This transition would not be so painful if our education system focused on equipping our students with the skills necessary to thrive in the real world.

I clearly remember my professor's response three years ago when I told her I would miss 50 minutes of class once a month for my professional pursuits (I had launched an idea and was managing it as a full-time student). She laughed and told me college was not part time, and for every two hours of class, I was required to do four hours of homework. She discouraged my professional efforts, because in the existing system, I could not succeed professionally while also succeeding academically. Why are our students expected to spend countless hours outside of school on homework, and little to no time exploring and creating their successes?

Imagine if students had the opportunity to learn what it takes to thrive independently, to be DO-ers and understand failure, to be able to communicate their strengths and acquire opportunities.

Through my line of work, I have seen the impact professional experiences can have on students. I have seen how a 15-year-old's self-confidence and motivation can skyrocket when she applies the networking skills taught to her and receives a positive email response from a CEO she admires. It is remarkable how a meaningful mentorship, one that was acquired by a 17-year-old and not something he was "placed" into, can provide a sense of direction and accountability that applies to a path beyond high school or college.

While I commend the Palo Alto Unified School District and certain districts around the country for implementing programs of this sort, I do not believe that the mindset surrounding these programs is effective. The programs must represent the real world accurately, and cannot be seen as simple "resume boosters." We cannot simply place students into internships or mentorships; we all know that nothing is handed to us in the real world. We need to teach our students how to explore their interests, and empower them to acquire opportunities independently. We need to let it be OK if a student does not enjoy an internship in a field that he or she so desperately wanted a career in. Cross it off the list and you are one step closer to discovering your true interests. Without this change of mindset, we are stuck in a system where a deceptive definition of success prevails.

It breaks my heart to hear that Carolyn and the many other students I have spoken with do not feel a sense of accomplishment or nostalgia when they look back at their high school and college years. These eight years should not be miserable. They should not lead to unemployment, helplessness and debt. We need to create a learning environment that provides students with real world experiences, and empowers them to create their own success by failing, learning and moving forward. Let's give students the opportunity to look back at these years with nostalgia and gratitude for some of the most meaningful experiences.

Shireen Jaffer is a 2011 graduate of Palo Alto High School and a 2014 University of Southern California grad. She is the founder of Skillify and can be reached at

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11 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2015 at 8:09 am

Academic success is only one type of success. There are many other successes in life that can be strived for.

I am reminded of the old proverb "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". Dullness to me is not a sign of success. We are raising so many gray adults, carbon copies of each other. The fact that one might outshine another is a race to nowhere and one just inching ahead of a gray pack is not success.

For my own kids, I hope that they make peace with their maker, that they strive to find their own place in the world, that they find a passion that makes them feel they are alive and have dreams that come into fruition. I hope that they find a soulmate to marry and spend the rest of their lives with. I hope they have children and become good parents first and good employees (or business leaders) second. I hope that they strive to make the world a better place and find their place in it. I hope that they find their own way rather than become sheep.

This to me would be success for my kids.

19 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 11, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

My reaction to this essay was that it demonstrates what it decries. It is an interesting example of the purported/intended message not being what may be the actual take-away.

Notice the example of a 15-year-old getting a response from a CEO (paragraph 10). Although the author presents this as a "success", for most students it will be unachievable, and consequently a "failure".

The author also has a bias for personal networking, as can be seen in the content of this essay and her professional choices. Although the essay cites "Find your path", its content is advocacy for a particular path--prioritization of networking skills--that is ill-suited to many students' personalities, aptitudes and interests.

The author's reaction to a professor about skipping class (paragraph 8) is also contrary to the purported message. Notice that the professor is not only concerned about the author missing class, but her not having time to do the homework required to be successful. The author fails to understand that message, and not only doesn't see the problem with her choice to overload herself but to advocate it. This is something that comes up over and over in the discussions of stresses on current Palo Alto high school students.

Finally, the underlying tenor of the article is that of a motivation speaker or a presentation by a sales rep, which is not surprising given the apparent business orientation of the author. However, there is a disconnect between a presentation that seeks to be pleasing/safe while claiming it is important to take risks.

6 people like this
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2015 at 8:25 pm

@Doug Moran - Your comment "not only concerned about the author missing class, but her not having time to do the homework required to be successful" SO misses the author's point. In this case, missing class is incidental - and she IS successful, even with missing 50 minutes of class a month. Do you not see how silly that sounds?

Ms. Jaffer - congratulations on your accomplishments! It looks like you graduated USC in 3 years AND started a company that will not only make you happy but also help others. I really like that one of your goals is for students to get experience in something that matters to them and not just something that will pad their college resume (unlike many of the "internships" and "trips to help those less fortunate" funded by parents of some of your classmates.) I am very proud of you!

5 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 11, 2015 at 8:50 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@Palo Alto Mom: "@Doug Moran - Your comment "not only concerned about the author missing class, but her not having time to do the homework required to be successful" SO misses the author's point. In this case, missing class is incidental - and she IS successful, even with missing 50 minutes of class a month. Do you not see how silly that sounds?"

There is no evidence that Ms Jaffer *was* successful in that class. She probably got credit for the course, but did she learn the material? Her attitude suggests that she probably didn't, possibly because all she wanted from the course was to "get her ticket punched" rather than learn the material.

So you seem to be saying that she is to be judged "successful" because she succeeded at those things that she didn't fail at. To quote you "Do you not see how silly that sounds?"

5 people like this
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2015 at 10:56 am

@doug moran - Ms. Jaffer IS a success because she founded a meaningful business that helps others. Whether she was successful in any particular class is incidental.

15 people like this
Posted by Another dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 12, 2015 at 11:57 am

The fact is that schools have pursued a policy for many years, designed to "raise test scores at any cost".

The cost is: kids are loaded down with insane, abusive amounts of stress, and for a huge percentage of kids, this stress causes self-harm, drug addiction, cutting, suicide, and misery.

The schools are out of control and can't stop themselves. The administrators turn a blind eye...they know the problem, but cannot admit to it. The citizens of Palo Alto are mostly oblivious or busy debating airy-fairy non-solutions. Senior citizens who went to school 40 years ago have zero conception of what's really happening.

The net result is, nothing gets fixed, the kids continue to be abused and their lives crushed. Parents watch helplessly, no power to intervene.

Or, like me, parents yank their kids out of the system and send them to private school. It's cheaper than paying for the psych ward.

People wonder why kids get hooked on drugs like Heroin or Amphetimines. Simple. Because their high schools make them take ADHD meds or antidepressants, and this leads directly to harder drug abuse in college.

16 people like this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 12, 2015 at 10:55 pm

No success is possible without parents letting go of the "every kid needs to go to college" dogma. Some kids aren't academically inclined, but make one hell of a builder. Are the a failure for not going to college or a success for excelling at a skills?

College, especially ivy leagues, offer empty vessels empty promises.

10 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2015 at 12:15 am

What I am continually struck by is how everyone these days seems to feel liberated to share the opinion that their way is the only way or definition of success. Academic success is not the only path to success in life, or even a sure path, but it IS a perfectly valid path. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly no less valid than developing "networking" skills. For me personally, spending 24 hours straight in a physics lab or completing a terms' worth of computer programming assignments in 2 days was tough and character building as was running a marathon. "Networking", not so much, except for screwing around with the early ARPANET. Striving to be the best you can be at almost any endeavor has great value as well as knowing what you are good at or motivated by. I was talking to a parent tonight at a PALL game and they said that PALY high school is as hard as your student makes it. Its the parents' responsibility to help guide their children to chose their own path. High school can be many things to many people , depending upon what they bring into it. A definition of success can never be imposed externally and thats one of the most valuable lessons to teach your children.

"Our students fear failure and consider it to be avoided at all costs." ... wouldn't that be in large part to messages the parents are giving, not the schools? In fact , I really have a fear with my own child that the schools themselves are giving too much touchy/feely messages in the lower grades that no one's feelings should ever be hurt and this leaves them unprepared for high school, college, and the real world after. Its not fair !!! huh?

5 people like this
Posted by Motherof2
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 13, 2015 at 6:42 am

With all the changes to improve the climate in our schools, at Gunn parents night presentation counselors were explaining to parents that if your child is lowering grades from A to B, if sports are on the way to an As, still allow the student this 'balance', etc . I was thinking about the academic base line for each individual student. It's not always an A or B. There are very respectful Cs, and kids work hard for those grades too. Many freshman students are failing Gunn (some grades were corrected with the outside tutoring). Kids who stayed in the system since kindergarten. As long as we will put emphasis on grades and not effort, as long as the school will worship only high achievers, kids will feel stressed and disconnected with the school.

19 people like this
Posted by difficulty posting
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 13, 2015 at 8:47 am

I think this essay makes some very valid points. I agree with virtually everything it says. Thank you for making the effort to say what needed to be said.

The problem is that our system relies too much on constantly grading kids. Imagine grading a composer every few days during a hard season of trying to struggle with what becomes a master work. Even if the work is magnificent in the end, the average grade for most of those days would flunk the composer out, even assuming the thing could be completed while the composer tried every few days to please the grader. Who is this grading for? For the needs of the student, or the graders (all the adults, from teachers on up)? I think it has become the latter.

If flunking the composer out then costs said composer a host of future opportunities, the composer might have been better off on his/her own with some software or even just a musical instrument and the time to dream. Maybe it's no mistake that so many modern success stories come from those who chose between school and building a company..

The world is changing. Public Education must change or it will do less well than it could in the face of many of the disruptions other industries faced when they refused to face the music. We hear about innovating all the time, but our administrators fundamentally misunderstand what real innovation is and try overtly to crush it and the makings of it. Innovation doesn't come packaged nicely as some copacetic lightbulb moment for the yessiest of yesmen. Necessity is the mother of invention - those who have needs not being served by the current system, the malcontents - as research shows, not just the malcontents, but those who are expecting benefits from innovation to solve problems and willing to stick their necks out and do something no one else would. You can't exactly have innovation in a system controlled by people who think their reputation rests on a perception that there are never problems or mistakes (and that people who try to air or fix problems should be retaliated against and suppressed), and that reputation for the administrators' sake is to be regarded as above what's best for students and families.

The mark of excellence is not a place without mistakes or problems, it's a place that learns from, and fixes (in keeping with values like honesty, openness, and integrity), a place that innovates and strives to be the best rather than protecting appearances over substance.

For many kids, the grades are an impediment to their success. Imagine if Beethovan had been graded for comportment, penmanship, and organization (or let's face it, even for composing - he was very innovative).

15 people like this
Posted by PALY in the 90s
a resident of another community
on Sep 13, 2015 at 11:15 am

One of my favorite teachers had a poster in her office stating "lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part;" oh how I used to hate that poster and its message that I am not the center of the Universe!

I also felt immense guilt seeing that message when I was in her office for the sake of begging for a due date extension, or taking a make up test after "being sick" (aka manipulating the system for the sake of an extra day to study). I felt like that poster was calling Me out in particular, but in retrospect, being flaky and clever was not just my MO alone- it is a mindset endemic to adolescents. Maturing beyond that mentality is how I would define success for high school students.

As I got older, and made my way through undergraduate and graduate studies, that once-hated poster's slogan became my motto. If we take away the snide undertones the message can be reworded as "be accountable to yourself; responsibility builds esteem for self and earns respect from others." That is the most generalized way to define success - not what one achieves but how one goes about achieving it.

5 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 9:58 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Thank goodness I grew up when I did. We had a well rounded educational opportunity to become prepared for life as a responsible adult. You were encouraged to think for yourself and everyone was not forced into a tiny (but PC) mold.

Today, you are a Palo Alto 'Failure' if you:
You have not accumulated a six figure student loan debt.
You perform any blue collar or service type job
You don't drive a NEW model 'Luxury' Car

We should be teaching 'How to think for yourself', not 'How to pass the test'

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Posted by another parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 14, 2015 at 11:06 am

"My reaction to this essay was that it demonstrates what it decries. It is an interesting example of the purported/intended message not being what may be the actual take-away." Doug's quote also describes Challenge Success.

4 people like this
Posted by Meaningful Life
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 11:53 am

My wish is that High Schools would define their success as helping teenagers find their path toward a meaningful life, helping them realize that life is a long journey that doesn't go in a straight path. Maya Angelou has some fabulous quotes to remind us:

If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

7 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 14, 2015 at 12:46 pm

How about getting rid of the GPA? School shouldn't be seen as a game with a goal of getting a high score.

Instead, set the kids free and let them work on projects that relate directly to real life markets. Let them apply skills and learning immediately to creative and profitable endeavors.

We are now going to school in order to learn, build things and work for money. We are not going to school to acquire faux credits and faux scores.

The media and technology is rapidly changing us. Time to end the school lie. End grading and end the GPA. Such a simple, fundamental change.

2 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 14, 2015 at 12:58 pm

My 2cents: Raise them to stand on their own two feet by the time they are 22 (if they go to college...18 if they don't). If they are brats, make them accept the consequences (which means much more than 'time out', or a delay in their payout of the trust fund).

Our high schools don't demand from students respect for consequences of their actions, especially disrespect of authority figures.

2 people like this
Posted by skeptical
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 1:10 pm

Take a look at Shireen's business website ( to get a sense of what she is promoting here. Her message is that there are many ways to succeed, but the student testimonies on her website say that Skillify allowed them to "get ahead of the competition" and "learn skills that other students don't have" they could secure internships that would put them on the path to professional success. In other words, she advocates the need for professional, real world skills to give kids confidence (vs. just grades), but this because she runs a business that teaches these skills for a fee. I would encourage the Weekly to better screen its op-ed authors to ensure that their messages to the community are not just thinly veiled promotions and advertising.

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Posted by difficulty posting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2015 at 1:11 pm

I disagree about the essay demonstrating what it decries. People who stand up like this are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If you are not a "success" by the old standard, you are slammed as being lazy or dumbing things down. But if you are a "success" by those standards, you're accused of being a hypocrite. I think the essay was well-put, and a much needed viewpoint.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@ "difficulty posting"

[Portion removed.]

If your second posting is representative, I would never hire you as an intern, much less an employee. Nor would I work with you as a colleague or do business with you.

The problem? Lack of even fundamental conversational skills.
For example, the phrase you cite in the first sentence of "demonstrating what it decries" is mine, but at nowhere in my two comments did I say anything related to what you say in your third sentence. If you had done this in a meeting, it would likely have received an immediate public admonition, and I would have followed up with a formal written statement that I copied to HR as a preliminary to firing you for being disruptive if such conduct continued.

Your second sentence indicates that you are responding only to my first sentence and didn't consider it in the context of what followed. Again, a firing offense, both for conduct and for lack of competence. A basic requirement for being part of a team is listening and comprehending what other team members are say.

You, and "palo alto mom" before you, respond to my comment (and followup) about the essay's author shortchanging class without apparently thinking about what had been said. The author had *chosen* to take the class and her decision to skip some meetings, based upon her own description, was because she was too busy - that decision was unrelated to what was in the course and what the effect of skipping class would be on learning the material.

By the way, when I was hiring people, I not only "excused" grades of "B" on peripheral courses but found them a positive (at the time a "C" meant "did some of the work, but not very well"). I was looking for people who would stretch themselves and take courses where they weren't going to get "A", for example, taking a relevant advanced course in another discipline. Since they would be jumping in without all the background of those majoring in that discipline, they would be at a disadvantage in the grading. And because their goals for what they wanted from the course could be different from majors, they may have focused on only a subset of the material.

What was not acceptable was someone who would skip out on some of the classes and homework as determined by extraneous factors (such as the author did). Although the author doesn't supply enough information for us to know what percentage of the class she was skipping (as "too busy"), there is an implication that it was a 2-hour class, which in turn implies it met once or twice a week. If the former, she was skipping roughly 25% of the class meetings.

I hope this helps you understand the deficiencies in your education to this point and encourages you to remedy them.

11 people like this
Posted by difficulty posting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 14, 2015 at 7:03 pm

You and I are friends in real life, so I am going to forgive you for what seems to be a bad day. For the record, I would never want to work with anyone who would jump to such extreme conclusions or go on ad nauseum like that, based on knowing nothing else but a sentence in a relatively inconsequential online post. (Maybe I did exhibit poor conversational skills in that post -- I don't agree, but if that's what you believe, then maybe you should have considered that your take on what I intended was just wrong.)

Ranting at people does not make them understand anything - it's rude and a poor conversational strategy to boot - all it does is make people understand that you are someone who rants out of proportion to any possible offense. (The rest of the comment is made to others, I no longer wish to continue any back and forth if you are going to be so rude. I generally appreciate your blog posts and would admonish you that you are only undermining yourself and your credibility by continuing in that way.)

Here we have an essay in which someone is finally talking about the mismatch between how kids are taught to define success in school and what it means in the real world, plus how the educational system might better serve kids for the real world. Many parents are soul searching about this very issue because of how consuming our schools are. It's so refreshing to hear someone talk about redefining success this way, rather than the soul-crushing (and unhelpful) telling kids they should just accept that if they aren't doing well in this narrow, glorified sorting system, they should just learn to accept that they can't cut it (and redefine success from that negative framing of who they are).

"We need to teach our students how to explore their interests, and empower them to acquire opportunities independently." Yes!

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.


On the portion of my posting that you removed:

1. Would you please explain why in addressing a post by an anonymous person I stated that my response was based on my assumption that that commenter was the same as the commenter who had used the same (uncommon) alias earlier in the thread? I would think that explicitly stating such assumptions would be encouraged in the event that such was not the case.

2. Relatedly, would you explain what was wrong with me explicitly stating a assumption underlying my response that the anonymous poster had accurately self-identified "a resident of" field? Again, making such assumptions explicit help the discussion?

1 person likes this
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 15, 2015 at 3:19 pm

The Atlantic Monthly reported the results of a survey of companies - the number one thing they look for in hiring new graduates is an internship. Second was work experience while in college. GPA was 7th, the actual school was 8th. To me, that reinforces the value of Ms. Jaffer's business.

Web Link

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Posted by Tim Biglow
a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 16, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Please meet to continue the conversation next Tuesday (22sep2015) at 7:30p, University Club of Palo Alto (3277 Miranda Ave) with Doug Thompson, PhD and Head of Mid-Peninsula High School (1340 Willow Road, Menlo Park). Doug will explore the current "assembly line" approach of most public high schools, rising student stress levels, and how Mid-Peninsula HS is able to nurture its students with less stress in preparation for college.

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