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Published in Print: March 18, 2009, as Consumed by Failure

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Consumed by Failure

Shifting the Language of School Accountability

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By all rights I should count myself lucky. Although I teach high school English, I do not dread the task of grading papers; in fact, I find a certain pleasure in engaging with my students' ideas, however convoluted they may be. However, I have recently developed an alternative procrastination syndrome: I put off returning graded work.

The problem is that when I return papers to my students, they look immediately to their number grades to see if they crossed the “passing line,” which they have come to view as the ultimate referendum on their performance. Students who made impressive progress but did not pass have eyes only for their failures, and highly skilled students who pulled off C's high-five each other because they "didn’t fail." My narrative comments go largely unread.

In the seven years since the No Child Left Behind Act became law, the American public has grown accustomed to hearing about failing schools like mine—mythically dystopian places where administrators, teachers, and students collectively fail to meet state performance expectations. Headlines like the one I skipped past on The New York Times’ Web site last December, "Even More Failing Schools to Close," are unremarkable because failure has become a key word in our education vernacular, shorthand for a suite of familiar shortcomings: tests on which students fail to demonstrate proficiency; annual benchmarks that schools fail to reach; qualification standards that teachers fail to meet.

When we define success as the lack of failure, we confine ourselves to mediocrity. When we define failure as the lack of success, we doom ourselves to despair.

It is hard to underestimate the effect that such language exerts on the consciousnesses of everyone involved in public education, especially those who work on the front lines. It’s not just my students who have become consumed by the pass-fail binary; ever since my school found out it had not made adequate yearly progress under the federal law last year, the anxieties associated with failure have become a corrosive force. Administrators write evaluations that focus disproportionately on teachers’ shortcomings. Teachers lament that they are failing to serve their students, and that their students are failing to meet expectations. Students dwell on the number 70, which the school has defined as the threshold of failure. The word has spread like an epidemic of the flu, sparing nobody, leaving everyone disheartened and exhausted.

There is no denying that my school needs to be held accountable for providing its students with greater literacy and numeracy skills. But an enormous amount of excellent work gets buried by the system's fixation on failure. When a teacher energizes a reluctant reader to tackle a novel, when a struggling math student starts coming after school for tutoring, when an administrator finally gets a troublemaker to reflect on her actions: These are successes. They are not terminal successes, and they constitute only one small part of a larger story about institutional performance, but acknowledging them would motivate continued good work.


Failing and failures: The point I am trying to make is not about these words. It is about the way in which these words reflect a profoundly limited, and limiting, concept of school performance. When we define success as the lack of failure, we confine ourselves to mediocrity. When we define failure as the lack of success, we doom ourselves to despair. The binary vision of No Child Left Behind was useful when it came to exposing underperforming schools and establishing baselines for proficiency, but it has inhibited the ability of school communities to orient themselves around assets and progress—and this orientation is crucial.

Albert Camus argued that Sisyphus, eternally doomed to roll a boulder up a mountainside, is the only true Greek hero. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy," he concluded, and in so doing he captured something important about the reality of working in struggling public schools. All we can do, we tell ourselves, is keep pushing the boulder upward and trust that our slow progress matters. If the message from on high is that it does not matter, that we are failures until and unless we reach the mountaintop, the fragile hope that motivates us to keep pushing will die.

If, on the other hand, we are affirmed for our progress, our hope will become a motivating force. This is the task of the Obama administration: to establish policies that energize schools to continue striving for better performance—and to define "better" in terms of consistent movement toward an ideal, no matter how far off that ideal might be. Only then can there be a shift in tone and in stance that will inspire all of us to push even harder.

Vol. 28, Issue 25, Pages 22-23

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