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Should We Fail Kids? A New Chapter to an Old Story

Failing them teaches them a lesson. If we don’t fail them, they will never learn, so we have to fail them…so the traditional narrative goes in education. But does it work? Does it really teach them a lesson? I’m not sure. For many of the kids who fail in high school, it is not a new phenomenon, and many become our frequent “failers,” apparently not “learning the lesson” from past-failed classes. And sadly, for many, in high school, they are set on a track from which it is difficult to deviate, and they struggle to learn from the tough-love lessons that we provide. Some simply give up and disappear. I wonder, then, if we shouldn’t consider a new course of action, a new track, a new narrative. What if we didn’t fail kids?

Did the kid fail the class, or did we fail the kid?

Learning isn’t simple. It is complex, and as we’ve learned, it is different–distinctly different–for each kid, and certainly, one size does not fit all. At least that is what our talk suggests. But a look around suggests that we still walk the same old walk, forcing kids to wear a universal shoe as they make their way through our system. To be fair, perhaps we have made some progress in regards to differentiating learning in recent years, but for the most part, it is still the same old approach, a factory model still stuck on the same default settings from the beginning. And while I think there are a lot of dedicated, passionate educators who champion change and promote progressive practices that move us away from such a model, the slope is steep and the mission may be impossible.

I, like most high school teachers, have roughly 150 students per semester. I see them for roughly one hour a day, 180 days per year. Sounds like a lot of time. It’s not. I feel like my presence is barely a perceptible blip on the radar of their educational experience. Truly. Even so, I, as most, work hard in that precious space of time to do the best I possibly can for each student. Think about that. One hundred and fifty souls, all with different needs, for whom I am charged with an enormous task that I take beyond seriously. And I fail every year. I fail every day. I fail every period. No really. I am not trying to heap on the pathos here. I am simply stating the truth. I cannot possibly meet the needs of every kid, and so, I just try hard each day to help more than I hurt, getting by and succeeding where I can.And that’s the reality.  For my average and above kids, this generally works, and I fail less. In short, we do the best we can. But what about my kids who don’t fit into the average-and-above category, my kids who are disinterested, distrustful, and disenfranchised? Sadly, it doesn’t work, and I, hand-on-heart, am not so sure that when these kids fail, it is not I who failed  instead of they.  And it is my terrible, guilty burden.

Sadly, the same saga plays out every year, and not enough is being done to change it. And while I am not certain if we can or even know how to re-pen the story, I think we have to find a way. It’s too dark a tale to continue, for students and teachers alike. There has to be a way. The mission cannot be impossible.

A New Chapter

I wrote this over a year ago, before embarking on Project 180, before learning what a gradeless classroom can do to make the mission possible. And now a year later, with the first year of Project 180 behind me, and some timely and sage advice from Aaron Blackwelder, I am poised to present, along with my Grade -10 team at CHS, a unified grading approach that does not fail kids. To earn credit in our courses, kids have to demonstrate proficiency with our “Must-Meet” standards. If they do not, they will be given an “Incomplete” until they do (see specifics here ).

This new narrative tells our kids that learning isn’t something that they fail at in a push-them-through, one-size-fits-all time frame. Rather it is something that requires flexible circumstances for each of them as they make their way through their own learning journeys. It is something that never ends; it continues. It always continues. I used to subscribe to the former. I had to. It was all I knew. But in that “knowing,” I knew, too, that something wasn’t right. And so I sought to change it, and after a lot of trial and tribulation, I feel as if I have arrived at a new important chapter that I can contribute to the narrative. And though it is far from being ready to push through the printing press, I feel with each edit, it gets a little better.

We have the power to re-pen the story, and after connecting with more like-minded people at Teachers Going Gradeless ( ), I believe it more than ever. The mission is possible.

4 Replies to “Should We Fail Kids? A New Chapter to an Old Story”

  • The question is definitely phrased in the correct way, because if we do not support and require students learn the most critical skills, we have, indeed, failed them. Teaching students’ self regulation, responsibility, time management, and respectfulness is every bit our job as educators (perhaps more) than the content we teach. There are evidence-based ways to teach those skills, and then there’s the “old” way that leads to school dropout. Surely, we want to choose the research-based ways of behavior change that lead to success for students who struggle with these skills.

    • Thank you for chiming in. Yes, surely, we want to choose ways that lead to success for our struggling students. Wish more would move past the “old.”

  • There is always better. And until ALL learners leave our classrooms feeling successful–curious to continue their pursuit of learning– we should not be satisfied with where we are as teachers.

    I have come to the decision that education is not the gate in which students need to know the secret code to exit, but rather a museum where all have the opportunity to experience the world, make discoveries, uncover the mysteries of the past, and dream about what the future might hold.

    School is AN opportunity and not THE opporunty. The more we realize that the more we will value the idea that school is about the child .

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