The sure way to reduce failure … eliminate it!


West Potomac High School has found a way to completely make sure no chid gets left behind.  They have eliminated failing grades for students.

From now on, students who do not pass a class will receive a grade of “incomplete”.  Students who earn this incomplete grade will have a year to go back and learn the material again.

I am sure this article does not completely explain what is happening in this school.  I have to assume that in fact it is still possible for a student to fail after some point in time.  As with many news article, I am sure it omits certain truths to inflame readers.  However, for now, let me look at such a policy as it is presented.

Policies like this are gaining a great deal of support in the educational community.  My school is even showing signs of moving toward the elimination of “zero” as an option.  Students receiving grades under 50% would receive a 50%, and students failing to turn in work could not earn a grade less than 50%.  For now, our school is very kindly bringing things like this up at occasional meetings.  I know other schools are already doing this.

On the one hand, I see a point:  perhaps we need to give more time to kids to learn things … perhaps slower students need more time, and thus should not be automatically given a low grade because their work is sub par or not completed.  As a teacher, I can fully accept that students learn at different rates.

On the other hand, procedures like this proceed on two great assumptions, both of which I have a hard time accepting.

1.  Students fail primarily because of reasons beyond their control.

2. Teachers hold grading scales and deadlines as absolute, and would never budge one iota on a student’s grade, no matter the situation.

Let me address #2 first.

I know of virtually no teacher who would not make individual accommodations for students in a variety of situations.  These situations might be obvious (prolonged medical condition, recent loss of a family member/friend, extreme change in family situation, etc).  Some are not so obvious (extreme sudden breakup with boyfriend/girlfriend, got called in to work late at the last minute at the family restaurant).  Teachers generally get a feel for the students who really try, and occasionally need a break cut for them.  They also know about the kids who really don’t put in the effort, and who might get desperate at the end of the quarter/semester and beg for leniency (and just about never get it).

As a teacher, I will also tell you that the content of what I teach (that is physics) is of secondary importance to other more important lessons that they learn.  Responsibility is one of the primary lessons that we teach.  Some of my students may later take a physics course at the university, and their professors may be horrified to learn that their high school physics teacher never taught them significant digits (I don’t), but they can never hold over my head that I didn’t demand high quality work that was turned in on time.  I would think that they can live with the former and accept the latter.

That first point is thus also addressed.  In my 17 years of teaching, no student has ever failed my class because they simply “weren’t smart enough”.  Invariably, the only students who failed my class were students who failed to consistently do work.  I have had students who may have been lacking academic skills, but if they wanted to, I was always there for them to get good enough to pass (or better).

This article also brings up the fact that our educational system seems to be doing everything possible to make sure that students have as little adversity and challenge in their paths.  I know that if I ask my more successful friends, they will tell you that the path to success is paved with adversity … that it is the greatest teacher.  If our society make everything too easy for students, then what have we taught them?  What have we prepared them for?

I can tell you that as a high school student, I had my own adversity, and I hated it!  There were days I did want to give up … but the system sure as hell never allowed me to do that without a consequence.  My friends and family stood by me, and I made it through.

Until society in general and the upper echelons of the educational research-political complex get it into their heads that they need to allow people to fail as a means of teaching them how to deal with adversity, we are going to be creating a society that will continually be expecting bailouts, handouts, extra credit, and extensions.


One Response to The sure way to reduce failure … eliminate it!

  1. Beth says:

    I remember the whole “kids shouldn’t get less than 50%” argument between principal and 8th grade English teacher a few years ago. The point was made that the huge discrepancy b/w only 10% loss between each grade level until 60% (I know other schools have different, stricter grade guidelines) and then the drop to ZERO and the effect that one hw assignment could have on a student’s average seemed unfair/imbalanced. (shrug)

    I agree with the notion that educators need to keep their minds open, make humane accommodations for individuals and give each kid the opportunity to work their ass off (yes, even at the “zero-hour” of the quarter) to pass, but ultimately failure DOES have to be an option…the least liked/accepted option available. I’d much rather have my kids learn the sting of “failure” in a relatively safe school environment than later on in life without a safety net.

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