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Weekly Wonder: I wonder if we should fail kids.  

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?

Welcome to the first Weekly Wonder.  In these posts I will be purposefully provocative, seeking to strike a chord among readers, compelling them to join the tougher conversations, the tougher chapters from the narrative, which I believe have to be rewritten if we are going to make significant, systemic changes in public education.

This first installment. “I wonder if we should fail kids,” will be presented in three segments.

  1. Did the kid fail the class, or did we fail the kid?
  2. Is our grading system fair?
  3. What if, instead of continuing a culture where kids fear failure, we create a culture where kids set their sights on success?

This first segment takes a look at the culture of the system, calling into question the ability of teachers to truly meet students’ needs in our current reality and what implications that may have on student success.

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, as most high school teachers, have roughly one-hundred-fifty students per semester.  I see them for roughly one hour a day,  one-hundred-eighty 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-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 they who failed but I.  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.

Please join the conversation.  Your words matter.

One Reply to “Weekly Wonder: I wonder if we should fail kids.  ”

  • I’ll start by agreeing about mission impossible. I work with developmental disabled adults and my job is to teach them daily living skills. However, when I am working with 3-6 adults that all need constant assistance in necessities such as grooming, eating, and tolieting, it proves to be difficult not to take short cuts. What the state of Washington is expecting from staff is really not plausible unless each adult had there own trainer to meet all their needs. I believe the struggle of being an educator is that they want every one of their students to succeed but can’t possibly individualize a lesson for 150 kids. Some kids undoubtedly will fall short. Now as far as the failing kids question…I think it may be a light shown on the keyhole that may lead a change. Here’s how: Students who fail are not motivated to try again or harder (typically). Once a student is sent down a path of failing they typically accept they aren’t able and leave it at that. I took a intro to literature class which I was very excited about but the class was huge and it was just lectures and computer work. I found this very unappealing and failed the course twice even knowing the majority of the material the second time taking it. I will NOT try a third time because I know it does not work for me.
    Here’s where I get a little contradictory.
    I think there has to be some failure. If a classroom is designed for everyone to pass there is not challenge, strive, or correction. There would be not measurable data whether the teacher is teaching effectively or if the students are really learning. I do however believe that there should be multiple things in the classroom that are fail proof. All that is needed is participation. In all subjects, if a student is giving some hope that they have a chance of succeeding or given a confidence boost I think we’ll see an improvement in classroom preformance.

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