How Do We Subtract Failure from the Public Education Equation?

Failure is a debilitating thing for anyone but it is particularly hard on children. Nevertheless, failure is key component of the traditional American educational process and the very fact that kids can fail leads to a reality in which far too many of them do. We need to ask ourselves, why is this necessary? Why should any child have to deal with failure?

Let us examine the definition of the word “fail.” Merriam Webster defines “fail” to mean “to end without success.”

For the purpose of public education, we can define “fail” as “unable to demonstrate mastery over given subject matter.” In our present educational process we have given the lesson; we have given students a fair opportunity to practice; and, finally, we assess their level of mastery by asking the student to demonstrate that mastery on a test. The grade the student earns and that goes into the gradebook is a reflection of their performance on that instrument of measurement. So far, so good.

The problem with the American educational process in an overwhelming number of public school classrooms is not that some kids did well on the test and other kids did poorly. Rather it is that, however the child performs, we declare our job done with respect to that particular lesson, lesson module, chapter, grading period, semester, or school year.

The question that needs to be posed is, “Why would we ever be satisfied with an unacceptable outcome for any of our students?”

These are children, after all. They are unique individuals—children of creation—and they each have equal value in the eyes of both the Creation and the law. Is there any reason in the world to compare them against their classmates and to declare that some are better or worse than others?

Is there any reason to believe that because students did not grasp a given lesson as quickly and easily as some of their classmates that they are incapable of learning? Yet, this is what happens in our classrooms. We finish one lesson and we move onto the next and each child is given a grade to reflect their level of mastery over the material at that point in time.

When we push kids along to a new lesson while they are still struggling to understand the old, they begin to view themselves as less capable than their classmates. This experience influences the way the child thinks of himself or herself and diminishes his or her self-esteem. When this happens over and over again, the effect is devastating. Is it any wonder that some of these kids reach a point at which they stop trying because they no longer believe that success is attainable? Is there ever a time when this could be considered an acceptable outcome?

If our job is to determine which children can learn the most in the fastest measure of time then the educational process in place today is perfectly structured.

If, however, our objective is to help every child learn as much he or she can as quickly as he or she is able then the educational process is working at cross purposes with our objective.

Each child deserves the time they need to experience that special moment when the material clicks in their mind and they understand. Only then should they be asked to move on to new material. Once a pattern of success begins to manifest itself in the child’s mind, everything changes. With each success it becomes easier to succeed on the next lesson.

Think about the difference this would make in the child’s self-perception.

When a child finds themselves at a point where they no longer see the sense in trying it is, indeed, a failure but it is a failure on the part of the educational process and not on the part of the child.

Our current educational process is structured to produce disparate outcomes and we will not be able to alter this reality until we change the way we teach and the context within which we teach. We need to re-invent the educational process until it is structured to produce the outcomes we seek: that all children learn as much as the can as fast as they are able.

My book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America offers a blue print for a structure that will produce such outcomes.

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