Education Opinion

Why Do We Design Failure Into Our Schools?

By Starr Sackstein — June 18, 2019 4 min read
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Guest post by Douglas W. Green, Ed.D.

Twitter: @DrDougGreen


Book: Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science, It’s Way More Complex: What’s Wrong with Education and How to Fix Some of It. http://bit.ly/2VdP82o

Suppose schools didn’t exist and you had to invent them from scratch. As part of your brainstorming process, would you ask your team what role failure should play in the system?

By failure, I don’t mean the trendy type promoted by many educators where you encourage students to take risks and when they fail expect them to analyze why something didn’t work and to try again. I’m referring to the idea that you can fail an entire year of school at the elementary level or fail a yearlong course at the secondary level.

If 65 percent is passing, students that score lower at the end of the year need to start all over. It’s like a real-world game of Chutes and Ladders. If you have ever played this game, you will recall a board where if you land on a ladder, you go up as far as the ladder goes. If you land on a chute, you slide down to the bottom. In the game, there is a very long chute near the top. This means that someone way ahead could end up behind everyone with one unlucky roll.

In most schools, there are only chutes, and they only come at the end of the school year or semester. They are all the same size and they all take you back to the beginning. This makes no sense. Suppose you earn an end-of-year grade of 60 percent. That means you almost know enough to pass. In spite of the effort you put in to get this score, you earn the same reward as the student who did nothing!

The same thinking applies to elementary school students who don’t quite make the cut for promotion. They end up going back an entire year in all subjects. That’s a pretty long chute. In some cases, they go back to content and skills from the beginning of the year that they already know.

Let’s Look at the Footrace Metaphor

I recently ran my first half marathon (13.1 miles/21 km). I came in behind 469 runners and beat 100 others. While this doesn’t sound great, I did come in second in my age group and even won a gift certificate. If the race were run like the local schools, the finish line would have closed at some arbitrary time and those of us still on the course would return to the starting line. If students in a track race after school can finish the race no matter how far behind they are, why can’t they finish their courses and grade levels during the school day?

When I was a principal and teachers tried to talk me into having a child repeat a full year, they usually used one or more euphemisms as part of their rationale. They would say things like, “Let’s give this child the ‘gift of time’ ” or by repeating, “The child will ‘get on track’ for the rest of his school career. Ask anyone you know who was “held back,” and they are more likely to say, “I flunked grade X.” If we are going to harvest kids like a crop to start school, we might as well keep the crop together.

Replace Failed With Not Finished Yet

If a student masters less than 65 percent of the required material, why can’t we just say, “You haven’t finished yet.” The closer one is to this magic number, in theory, the less time it should take to finish the race. They may even continue upwards from just passing. This doesn’t happen in most schools, and why is that? Certainly, the fact that it’s easier to roll out one-size-fits-all instruction than an individualized version has something to do with it.

Some innovative schools have created programs known as Credit Recovery or use one of the multitude of versions available online. They come in different flavors, but they usually try to take a child from where they are and move them forward to finish the course. I’ve visited some of these programs and talked with students and teachers. The students see it as a second chance.

In addition to the online versions, a typical in-school effort features 10 to 20 students in a room each working on their own material at their own pace with one teacher circulating to help. Students all have laptops and software to direct their learning. If more than one student is working on the same content, they can work in groups and even do projects. The teachers who take this on usually prefer it to the old stand and deliver routine from their previous years.

Bring on the Gifted

At one point in my career, I was a district computer director. In that capacity, I hired the top students in our high school as student programmers. They often solved the problems that stumped me. One student wanted to take the next year of math in summer school, which wasn’t allowed. I lobbied successfully for him, and he basically taught himself the entire year’s course in six weeks and scored high on the state final.

My point here is that a flexible system that doesn’t fail students who struggle can also get out of the way of faster learners. Rather than trying to close the achievement gaps, we should let them expand. When people ask me about closing the gaps, I tell them it’s easy. Just slow down the fast learners and retain any student who falls significantly behind. Doing so sounds immoral to me, but this happens too often in the world of education reform, which now also labels schools and teachers as “failing.”

How is that progress?


The Glossary of Educational Reform. Credit Recovery, Aug. 29, 2013, available online at http://bit.ly/2YGBTsU.

Ravitch, Diane (2019). The Wit and Wisdom of Diane Ravitch, Garn Press: New York, NY.

Warn, Dara. The Truth About High School Credit Recovery, Foster EDU Online, Oct. 27, 2014, available online athttp://bit.ly/2YJAYIg.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.