The End of Failure

Jan 18, 2012 by

Will Fitzhugh The Concord Review

Will Fitzhugh

The Concord Review

Time magazine this week has an article about the failure of No Child Left Behind, and it highlights the failure of the Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia, to get the last 5% of its student body to achieve grade-level competence in math and reading. This outcome stems from the failure of the teachers, the principal, the counselors, the special needs teachers, the curriculum coordinators, the reading specialists, the math specialists, the superintendent, the state department of education and its staff, the governor, and, of course, the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia. While others, such as the federal government, publishers, professional development specialists and the like might share some of the blame, the first group is to be held mainly responsible for the failure of that 5% of the students at the school in question.

Is anyone left out of this analysis, which is the current analytic wisdom available for all school failures in the United States at present? Some might suggest some responsibility on the part of parents, but there is one group which always is, it seems, held blameless and harmless. The students.

I have heard of a time in this country, and even in some other countries, when, if a student failed in school, the failure was the student’s. Indeed, even now in Japan, according to Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, there is the view that if a student fails academically, it is because he has not worked hard enough.

However, it is no longer possible to entertain the idea that a student is responsible for his or her own learning and academic progress in the United States. We like to think of a student in our schools as if under anesthesia on a classroom operating table, being operated on by our surgeon-teachers who are wholly responsible for the success or failure of the operation. Our passive students can not be held responsible for any part of their own education, because if failure occurs, it cannot be theirs. Our children cannot fail at anything, so if there is failure, as, apparently, there is, it must be ours—that is an axiom of our educational philosophy.

There are consequences that flow from this axiom, of course. Students who fail (my mistake)—students whose academic work is failing, understandably come to believe that the school and the teacher are supposed to “do” education to them, and that they have no responsibility for the outcome—whether they learn anything or not is not their problem.

Of course it is their problem, as they will discover when they go to community college or try to find a job, but we feel it is our duty to keep them from knowing that as long as we can.

Naturally, there is a sense of power and control for educators in accepting all the responsibility for student learning, and a noble sort of martyrdom when, in spite of all our efforts, students fail anyway. But in the process students are deprived of ownership of their own education and their own learning.

It was probably Alfred North Whitehead who wrote that “For an education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.” How quaint that idea seems to us, that the student must study or the failure will be his, not ours. How we, as legislators, educational leaders, teachers, etc., would hate to have to give up any of “our” territory of study and learning to mere students. What do they know?

Perhaps this folly will soon run its course. One is permitted to hope. Perhaps we will take another look and see that it is the student who decides whether to come to school or not, whether to pay attention or not, whether to do the homework or not, whether, finally, to take his education seriously or not.

You can tell a born teacher by the earnest way he or she turns to a serious student who has a question, and, yes, “a teacher affects eternity.” But as Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago, the student who makes the most progress “must be anxious to learn.” He was a good teacher and affected lots of people, but he knew better than to try to outlaw failure by removing all responsibility for learning from the students themselves, as we have seemed so dumbly determined to try to do in recent years.

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