Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Consumed by Failure

By Sarah M. Fine — March 13, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Consumed by Failure

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management What Schools Can Do to Tackle Climate Change (Hint: More Than You Think)
For starters, don't assume change is too difficult.
7 min read
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox hold a sign together and chant while participating in a "Global Climate Strike" at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Across the globe hundreds of thousands of young people took the streets Friday to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit.
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox participate in a Global Climate Strike at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., in September 2019.
Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP
School & District Management 'It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can't Ignore the Climate Crisis
Schools have a part to play in combating climate change, but they don't always know how.
16 min read
Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
School & District Management Some Districts Return to Mask Mandates as COVID Cases Spike
Mask requirements remain the exception nationally and still sensitive in places that have reimposed them.
4 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Chalk drawings from last August remind students to wear masks as they arrive at school.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
School & District Management Women Get Overlooked for the Superintendent's Job. How That Can Change
Three female superintendents spell out concrete solutions from their own experience.
4 min read
Susana Cordova, former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is deputy superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week