George Lucas Educational Foundation

Should We Fail Kids?

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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 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.

Originally published on Let's Change Education: "Weekly Wonder: I wonder if we should fail kids."

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Struggling right along with you, Monte! I also teach over 100 students each year (165 7th and 8th graders), and I agree that it is pretty close to impossible for us (alone) to reach all our kids, especially those who are battling personal factors that make it so much harder to learn and be successful in school. But I also know that there are many ways that we DO help them, and what I see year after year is a very small percentage who still fail my class. While I don't want to see any student not be successful, I also know that I can't beat myself up for not getting every kid to make more effort (and every parent to support their kids). And while the failing grade is devastating to the students, I think they know when we lie and give them a passing grade when they haven't earned it. The only students who fail my class are the ones who are not doing the work, and it does them no favor to give them a pass when they know they haven't done the work. So.... as you said, there is no easy answer, no quick solution, but I know I have to let go of the guilt. Our plates are too full, the demands too many for us to shoulder it all!

Becky Hansen's picture

So, if the definition of insanity, as popularly described, is doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result, why do we persist in using the same model for those disenfranchised students? Because the infrastructure is in place, and it's extremely difficult to find the courage to "not support" our traditional neighborhood schools. I try to relate what teaching is like to non-technical friends and I have real difficulty relating the schizophrenic mad rush. The one that weighs on you at night and tells you, "You didn't do enough - they are failing and it's your fault." Frankly, I'm over it. I refuse to take responsibility for things that are outside of my control. What I DO have control over, I will do my absolute best to do well. As the years go by, it becomes more and more apparent that building relationships that are healthy with those students is far more valuable than their grade in my class. They may have no need for the rest of their lives to know the theme in a piece of literature or which organelles moves waste out of a cell, but they need to know how to relate to others until they day they die. Our model of schooling makes this difficult at best. Let's change the model.


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