Are students who fail, quitters?

It was suggested to me, recently, that there is no failure, there is only quitting. I must respectfully disagree.

No doubt the educator who suggested that failing students have quit trying is speaking from personal experience with kids in his classroom. When a student has given up, it is easy to conclude that they have just quit. Unless one has made the effort to go back and assess that student’s home environment and their academic record, beginning with his or her first day of school, such conclusions are rarely justified. I suggest that such conclusions are dangerous assumptions that have tragic, life-long consequences for millions of young people.

Certainly, there are students who do just quit because they don’t care but they are not the whole story. There are millions of students who quit because they have learned to quit in the face of difficult challenges; challenges that require extra effort. It is my belief that these kids quit because they have lost hope. They have lost hope because the education process at work in our schools, both public schools and private, has set them up for failure. Please note that I said the education process has set them up for failure, not their teachers.

The education process sets them up for failure because, repeatedly, they are not given sufficient time to master subject matter before they are pushed ahead to new lessons that often require that they apply what they were expected to learn on previous lessons. Learning from one’s mistakes is a critical part of the learning process, but it only works when we have time to utilize the lessons from those mistakes to produce successful outcomes. Time is an essential variable. If we are not given sufficient time to apply those lessons, successfully, we will not experience that “Aha!” moment when it clicks in our minds and it all makes sense.

The learning process requires success, not just one success but a series of successes, each built upon previous successes. What happens to us when we are expected to learn to perform complex functions but are told to stop before we can perform those complex functions, successfully? We become frustrated and discouraged. If we are, then, asked to learn to perform an even more complex function, one that depends on our acquired proficiency in performing pre-requisite functions, our probability of success has dropped while our frustration and discouragement have increased. Repeat this process on increasingly more complex lessons and it will not take long before people of any age will begin to give up and stop trying.

By denying someone the opportunity to experience success we are teaching them that success is improbable, and the more improbable success becomes the greater the odds that he or she will quit and stop trying. The younger the student the more fragile their self-esteem and the more likely they will be to stop trying; not because they are quitters rather because they have lost hope.

Disadvantaged kids are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon because almost all of them arrive for their first day of school behind with respect to academic standards and often with respect to some of their classmates. Academic standards are the expectations that have been established for students, teachers, schools, and school districts.

If the purpose of public education is to ensure that children learn as much as they are able at their own best speed, it would not matter whether students start from behind. The objective would be to help them advance through the syllabus that the standards represent, beginning at their unique point of embarkation and progressing as far and as fast as they are able, building on their successes.

Unfortunately for these youngsters, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black and other minorities, our public education process is structured more like a competition in which students are guided through the standards according to a predetermined schedule. Students who perform well and keep pace with the standards are labeled as “A” and “B” or “honors” students and their success is celebrated. Boys and girls who struggle to keep up are given “Cs,” “Ds”, and “Fs,” or their equivalent and rarely have an opportunity to celebrate success.

Yes, I understand that teachers work hard to give struggling students the extra time, attention, and resources they need to be successful. A teacher’s ability to provide that extra assistance, however, is compromised by the number of struggling students with whom he or she must work. It is one thing to help one, two, or three struggling students and quite another thing when 25, 50, 75 percent or more of their students need that extra attention. Teachers are under relentless pressure to keep their classes moving at a pace that is dictated not by the individual needs of children, but by state-wide expectations. They have only so much time to devote to their struggling students and, always, state competency exams that are used to hold teachers, schools, and school districts accountable, loom in the future.

Because we resent that we are required to administer competency examinations (high stakes, standardized testing), we tend to reject the results from such exams. Because we reject the results, we do not apply what can be learned from them. What those results would teach us, if we would take the time to understand them, is that what we are doing is not working and that a percentage of our students are not learning. The data should prompt us to challenge all our assumptions about what we do and why. Instead, our displeasure with the idea of competency testing and the data they produce pushes us into denial.

Children who are failing are victims of an obsolete education process that was established generations ago and that has changed little even though the world in which our nation’s children must live and learn has changed exponentially. I don’t care what you want to call it, but this is failure, pure and simple.

It is not the children who have failed even though they are the ones who suffer the consequences of that failure. Neither is it our teachers who have failed. The culpability of teachers is that they know what they are being asked to do does not work for many of their students and yet they endure the unacceptable outcomes, passively, as if they are powerless to speak out.

Our education leaders and policy makers are the ones who are failing because they have a responsibility to reject unacceptable outcomes and be powerful advocates for change on behalf of their students, teachers, and communities. Instead, far too many of them continue, resolutely, to march down the same path as if there is no other way for them to go.

How can we continue sending young men and women out into the world without meaningful choices of what to do with their lives? It is a human tragedy of incalculable scope and scale and the consequences of it are, without doubt, at the root of most our nation’s ills.

If we want better outcomes, we must go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to give every child an academic path tailored to their unique requirements. We must then give them whatever time, attention, and resources they need to learn from one success to another so that they leave school with meaningful choices in life.

Bringing an end to the failure requires that we “think outside the box” because the solution lies outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. We cannot get where we need to go by making incremental changes. If we want every child to learn we must challenge all assumptions about what we do and why.

I have developed an education model that I offer as a starting point and I challenge educators, at every level, to examine the model to understand how it might work rather than looking for reasons why it might not. I believe, absolutely, that my model will work but you are invited to come up with a better approach if you can.

Please examine my model and white paper at http://bit.ly/2k53li3

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