Monday, September 26, 2011

Failure SHOULD BE An Option

Any given motivational speaker, military commander, coach or public school teacher is likely to utter the words "failure is not an option," but No Child Left Behind took the meaning of the statement to new extremes.

Literally . . .failure is NOT an option.

While I was building my basketball brand I spent more than a decade working in and around public schools, specifically as a special education teacher. I had the "bad" kids, which really just means I had the kids everyone had given up on. They were the ones carrying labels like ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or even the dreaded ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and essentially it was my job to just keep them out of sight and out of the office.

Ironically, it wasn't my kids who were having the real problems . . .it was the "normal" kids.

A big part of my job was to help the behaviorally-challenged students try to integrate into mainstream classes, and as such I spent a great deal of time in regular high school classrooms with the regular high school kids. I saw the way teachers were being forced to teach to the end-of-the-year test, and I heard stories about how they weren't allowed to fail students except under extreme circumstances.

That's right - no matter how poorly a student performed (or how seldom they showed up to class), failure was simply not allowed. I even had one friend, a very good Algebra teacher, who was ultimately fired because she refused to pass a group of students who didn't deserve to pass. And trust me, they didn't deserve to pass.

Something has happened to public school kids since the time I was in school. Back in my day - which really wasn't THAT long ago - the very idea of calling a teacher a name or even threatening a teacher was absolutely unheard of. What's more, if I had ever dared to do such a thing my parents would have put me so far under ground I would never have been heard from again. Disrespecting teachers simply was not something I could have ever gotten away with.

Now it's practically commonplace. And don't bother send the offending student to the office because they'll be right back in your classroom 10 minutes later with a satisfied smirk on his/her face, ready to repeat the offense because there really was no consequence for doing it the first time.

But attitude problems are really only the beginning of the issue. Many of today's students simply won't do the work, to an extent that the principal of the school where I worked actually made a rule that teachers were not allowed to count homework for a grade. You see, so few kids were doing their homework that it was bringing down the school's collective GPA.

One might think that the solution was a stricter homework policy, but no, in today's public schools we take the path of least resistance. All homework should be considered optional, and never taken for a grade.

Truancy is also a growing problem, with kids often missing so many days of class that they couldn't even be gifted a passing grade. Still, failure is not an option. No, to deal with that little issue our school district came up with a little thing called Credit Recovery, where students can pay $10 per class at the end of the semester and sit in the cafeteria after school for three hours and have their missing credits magically restored. What's really great is that they are not allowed to talk, interact with anyone, or even work on the classwork they missed during that time. It was a great money-maker for the school, but had absolutely no redemptive quality as far as recovering the information that was lost.

So Joe Truant skips boring old Algebra I for a semester, shows up at the end and pays his $10, and now he has credit for first semester Algebra I. He is now assigned second semester Algebra II . . .and you can see where we're going. Math builds on itself, so a student who didn't bother to show up for Algebra I has no prayer of passing Algebra II, but don't worry - the teacher will either be required to pass the student anyway or, if enough classes are missed, he can always show up and pay for credit recovery again in the Spring.

And the cycle repeats.

So my question is this: At what point did failure become a bad thing?

When I was in second grade there was a girl in my class who was supposed to be in third grade, but she had failed and was sentenced to repeat. That made an impression on me, I can tell you. I was never allowed to get a failing grade, mind you, or even a C, really, but if my parents weren't motivation enough seeing that girl get held back was more than enough for me to get the picture. I didn't want to see all my friends move on while I sat back in the dunce chair.

That failure taught my friend a lesson, but it also taught everyone around her a lesson. She never failed again, and wound up graduating the same year I did. Lesson learned.

No one wants to see a child fail a grade. It's embarrassing, as much as anything else. But it's a far worse offense to pass a child who hasn't earned the passing grades, as doing so creates a permanent welfare case for the public schools. Why work when you have figured out that it's not necessary?

Where's the logic behind this change in public education? What is the end result? At no time in Joe Truant's life is he going to get something for nothing. If he is late for work, he gets fired. If he goes to college, no professor is going to give a passing grade to a student who never does the work. In short, we're handicapping kids . . .possibly for life.

Failure should never be encouraged, and everyone involved - students, teachers, parents and even administrators - should work hard to try and avoid that outcome. Still, if, at the end of the day, despite everyone's best efforts, a student simply earns a failing grade . . .the only outcome that's in the best interest of the student is to receive the grade they have earned.

Failure should be an option once again.


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