Friday, January 6, 2012

Guarantee Success, and Failure is Certain

I was on my son’s middle school site planning team this year, and after a full day of work on setting goals and objectives, I left there with serious concerns. I believe our public education system is undergoing a total paradigm shift that will have dire consequences to our children and our nation.

The problem was encapsulated for me in a conversation held during a round table breakout session in which my son’s assistant principal defended a school policy call the ZAP Program (Zeros Aren’t Permitted). The policy doesn’t allow students to miss work, and requires them to score at least a 70% (or C) on all tests and quizzes.

My concern about the policy is that it leaves no room for failure or the natural consequences that accompany it. I believe it teaches students dangerous lessons that will have serious consequences for them in the future. I told the assistant principal that when I was a kid, I knew my grades were my responsibility and if I didn’t make good grades, I met the consequences at home. My parents did not constantly supervise my time or ensure that I completed homework. They left it to me and when the report card came in, if the score was low, then I suffered the consequences.

True to human nature, there was a period of time in middle school where my grades suffered as I asserted my independence and decided school wasn’t that important to me. It may surprise some people that when this attitude presents itself, it does not necessarily mean it is there to stay. By high school, I got good grades and was a responsible self-motivated teen. I learned from experience and failure that opportunities are provided but not guaranteed, and that ultimately it was my responsibility to manage my time, set goals and priorities, and take advantage of opportunities that would enrich my talents and better my life.

My son’s principal responded to this example by saying that it was just a “different world” then. He said, “That kind of education is not possible today.” In education today it is “no longer the mind set to give students opportunity,” but it has become, “I’m going to make you learn it.” His words shocked me, so I repeated his words back to him. It was evident by his reaction that he hadn’t meant it to come out quite like that. But he continued to defend the policy saying, if I let a student choose for themselves whether or not they want to learn, some children will choose to throw away their educational opportunities.

He expanded this reasoning by saying that in today’s world there are just far too many children who don’t have supportive and involved parents, and these kids receive their only discipline and motivation at school. In this environment schools have a greater responsibility to ensure students succeed in a more direct way. Instead of providing opportunities and then leaving it to students, aided by their parents, to take hold of these opportunities, school today must “guarantee” that their students will learn.

My school district’s mission statement exemplifies this thinking. The statement says the mission of our schools “is to guarantee that each student develops the character traits and masters the knowledge and skills necessary for personal excellence and responsible citizenship…” Can schools guarantee that children will develop character and master knowledge? How is it done? It is done as my principal suggested, by taking the attitude, “I’m going to make you learn.” There has always been a certain segment of society that has believed you can guarantee a certain outcome through compulsory means. Whether or not that is true, I believe it is a dangerous way to be teaching American children. John Adams said that, “Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.” How can we instruct them in the principles of freedom through compulsion?

I was invited to participate in an informal round table executive session of the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska Unicameral that dealt with problems arising from Nebraska’s school attendance law, which has practically eliminated parental discretion over school attendance in order to compel near-perfect attendance across the board. At the meeting, Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed confidently touted the success of this law even though it has caused students with excused absences to be scrutinized, harassed, and even prosecuted by attorneys and judges.

He was proud that the law had caused school attendance rates to sharply rise in the first year of its implementation. He was not bothered by concerns that it is inappropriate to use fear of legal action to improve attendance overall. He said that we as a community need to “re-evaluate how often we allow children to be absent from school.” He indicated that pressure on schools to guarantee that each child reach certain proficiency leaves no leeway in school attendance. The law sets the standard that students should miss fewer than five days of school in one year. This significantly limits a student’s outside opportunities and diminishes the freedom of parents to provide avenues of excellence outside the public school classroom.

Commissioner Breed’s comments reflect the reality that when schools shift their institutional focus from providing opportunity to guaranteeing success, the variety of opportunity available to students is actually diminished. He said that “it is simply a resource issue”, that the resource of teacher time and attention must be heavily focused on the mission to guarantee success, which is measured by all students reaching an acceptable level of basic proficiency. This takes precedence over other measures of excellence and achievement.

This changing paradigm is moving us into an era where children are not free to pursue excellence, and largely because they are no longer free to suffer the consequences of their failure. My son’s assistant principal defended the ZAP Policy, essentially a “no failure” policy, saying that the policy ensures that students succeed. He uses the same argument Commissioner Breed uses to justify the rigid attendance law. They say these policies work because they ensure that students learn the material at a time in their young lives when, as my principal sees it, they often lack the character development necessary for success. Therefore, if schools and state governments intervene early and require learning, the student will not miss the critical material and skills ensuring they have no “holes in their knowledge” when they’ve grown into their own maturity and character.

The questions I have are: how do the character traits of responsibility and self-motivation develop without experiencing failure and true life consequences? Can any lasting life lessons be learned in a controlled, sterile, forced environment? What about the “holes in their development” when they are grown?

These policies are just two examples of the philosophy of education in our generation. This philosophy dismiss our children as incapable of understanding the consequences of their choices, or unable to understand the value of education at a young age. I reject this idea! If these educators and politicians are right and our children are truly devoid of discretion and judgment in their youth? Are we to force them to learn? Thomas Jefferson taught that “if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Ensuring that every student is in their desk every day through government compulsion and that they never get a zero in the grade book may achieve the result of universal C-level proficiency. But at what cost? At the cost of highly motivated, self-disciplined, hard working, creative, ambitious, happy children.

If we force “learning” – which in this new philosophy means completing worksheets and projects under compulsion, and successfully regurgitating information on standardized tests – we will teach children far more damaging lessons. We will teach them that they are not free. Or even worse, we will teach them that freedom is dangerous because it allows failure. We will teach them that failure is an unacceptable part of life. Therefore, freedom must also be unacceptable. This loss of freedom and failure teaches a twisted reality and confuses our children. It removes true accountability and teaches them that are not responsible for themselves because others will guarantee their success. In this climate, we raise lazy, entitled children who are unsatisfied with themselves and others and are far more likely to fail in the real world and be unable to recover from it.

My son’s principal would probably dispute this assertion and point to the excellent students at their school, their academic success and maturity. To this I would say simply that the effects of these dangerous lessons are likely to be far more prevalent among children who get their only training and discipline at school. I, for one, work hard to counteract these teachings in my home. Our principal seems to believe that some portion of his students would throw away their educational opportunities if they were free to do so, and that their parents are content to let them fail. It is far more likely that some parents are simply willing to allow their children to learn in the school of life. They are comfortable with the concept that school provides opportunities, and that it is our responsibility to seize them. Granted, parents like that may be fewer today, however common they were in the past.

Educators are becoming increasingly willing to strip children and parents of freedom in education to pursue a guaranteed outcome through an equality of inputs. To do this, they must have total control over students and deny parents their natural rights to direct their child’s education and form their child’s values. I don’t believe they do these things maliciously. I believe that they have good intent. But as Milton Friedman said, “There's nothing that does so much harm as good intentions.” Good intentions that view people’s freedom as the barrier to achievement of high aims are the most dangerous of all.

Over the past decade, a wave of education reforms have swept the nation and are responsible for this paradigm shift that is rewriting the purpose and methods of education in our society. What school should be doing is preparing the young for continued learning later in life, by giving them the love of learning and the skills to do it. William Butler Yeats described beautifully what the purpose of education is when he said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” These reforms are bringing our education system to a “fill the pail” paradigm, and run a very serious risk of extinguishing much of the fire which drives creativity and pursuit of unique individual achievement.

Abraham Lincoln wrote, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” If we want to raise the next greatest generation of Americans – independent, creative, hardworking, self-reliant, disciplined, responsible, and empowered to build a strong free America – then we can no longer sit idle and allow these changes to be implemented unchallenged. We must become aware of how these “reforms” will impact our children and nation today and in the future, and fight to preserve in our public school system the qualities of education that build strong character: freedom, opportunity, and personal accountability.


  1. "Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success."
    ~Dale Carnegie

    Excellent post!

    I cannot believe that any intelligent, educated person would honestly believe that eliminating failure is the best path to creating successful students. Is this where the philosophy of making sure every child gets a trophy has led us?

    My children both started competitive figure skating when they were three-years-old. Our family learned quickly that we can provide them with excellent coaches, we can pay for hours of lessons, we can outfit them in the best costumes, etc., but when the music starts, they are out on the ice ALONE, and they ALONE determine their fate. At age 8, my daughter has learned the consequences of choosing to NOT listen to her coach, she has learned the consequences of choosing NOT to practice and much, much more. The times when she lands at the top of the awards podium and definitely thrilling, but even at the tender age of 8, she will admit that the best life lessons have come when she's been at the bottom. Why is this such a hard concept for highly educated people claiming to be experts in the field of education to comprehend?

    These lessons absolutely transcend into every day life, especially school. If my kid leaves their backpack or paper at home, I don't bring it to school for them. If that means they get a zero, then so be it. They have learned a lesson in responsibility and will be more likely to remember next time. If they don't study for the spelling test, the grade will reflect that and there are consequences at home for poor grades.

    What kind of citizens are we creating when we don't allow anyone to fail? The current trend in education seems to be an obsession with the kind of employees we are creating in school, so under that premise -- do you really want an employee who demands a raise, even though their projects weren't successful? Will a child grow up feeling comfortable taking risks if they never learned that it is okay sometimes to fail? And where does that lead our society?

    While I agree that failure should not be the ultimate destination -- that schools need to continually work with students to try to get them to understand the material -- a little failure now and then never really hurt anyone. If educators really are in the mindset that a child should never fail, they need to shift their focus from the student to the school. They need to be creating a variety of programs that address the many different learning styles of the different children in the classroom. Too often, children simply repeat drill after drill of the same learning method when a shift in teaching would aid in their comprehensive. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting the same result, and insanity is what happens all too often in our schools.

    I suspect that these administrators read an article somewhere that talked about failure not being an option in school. I also suspect that if they had read more than just a headline, they would find that the article actually talked about schools adjusting their teaching styles to fit the students' learning styles, ensuring that everyone comprehends the materials the way their brains work best.

    Of course, they got it all wrong.

    We can always hope, though, that they, too, learn from their failures.

  2. Great piece. Reminded me of this C.S. Lewis quote: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  3. This article has opened my eyes to what's going on in public education like never before. When I consider it in light of my own youth, I see another point of context.

    I was a good student - graduated from high school in the top 10% of my class, participated in loads of extracurriculars, attended a major private university and graduated with a B.A. But in my junior year of high school, I experienced what wouldn't have been allowed under this model - and it was incredibly good for me!

    My AP English teacher (American literature) was a former college teacher, and he taught our class like a college course. It was one of the three most enriching classes I took in high school. Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, was fantastic! With the college format came a syllabus. Well, my youthful listening ears and reading eyes didn't function too well, and I didn't realize that one of the assigned tasks was half our grade.

    I didn't do it.

    Consequently, when it came time for our first round of grades (the first of six) I got an "F". My first and only "F" ever. And did I learn from it? Yes! I never made the mistake of not reviewing and internalizing my syllabus again! And I learned that you can fail at one task, learn from it, and succeed in the long run.

    I am intrigued by the shift in the philosophy of education you've described. I'm horrified by its implications. I will speak up for opportunity-based education over outcome-based education in my new school district. I want my children to be free to choose well or choose poorly, and experience real-life consequences when those consequences are relatively small, so they've had practice in choosing well by the time those consequences are life-changing.