The Best Way to Make Sure Children Fail

The educational ranking of American students when compared to their counterparts can be summarized in one sentence: the American educational system is failing.  It is a disgrace, given this country's wealth and abundance of opportunity that we as a nation are failing our children.

This one article can in no way address the countless issues facing our broken educational system.  However, as an educator, there is one particular philosophy that I believe leaves no room for growth or risk-taking and creates an anxiety-ridden and apathetic generation.  It is the philosophy we cannot let a child fail.  If you simply judge this philosophy on its intent, at best you might say it is a noble goal.  If you hold this philosophy accountable for its results, it is an abject failure.

The most frustrating part of this nonsensical philosophy is that the greatest achievements of mankind were made possible only because certain individuals had the ability to view failure as a necessary means to achieve success.  How can we teach about the achievements of such people as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and countless others and yet educate contrary to the nature of how success is achieved?  Their accomplishments have forever altered the world in which we live.  However, if not for their ability to turn the disappointment and shame normally associated with failure into a force of determination, their dreams would not have come to fruition.

This attitude or mindset is far from what we see within the brick walls of our educational institutions.  Even more disturbing, we are promoting a generational cancer of failure avoidance, and it is eating away the life force that harnesses perseverance.

This philosophy of not letting a child fail aligns with what is called a "standards-based" grading system.  In this system, there is no accountability for missed assignments or poor tests grades.  Students are simply able to turn in the assignments when they get around to it and redo tests for a better grade.  This practice destroys any hope of teaching responsibility and accountability in the classroom.  This "new" grading system is nothing more than a sleight-of-hand by repackaging failure avoidance to justify the delusional dream of a world where no one is accountable and everyone is a winner.

When the realization of failure eventually hits this generation like a ton of bricks, who will be there to pick up the pieces?  Purposely prolonging failure avoidance will just keep this generation on the sidelines, fearful of stepping into the arena of life.  We as educators, parents, and the educational institutions involved have an obligation to make sure our children are not wasting away on the sidelines.  We must teach them how to deal with setbacks and take responsibility instead of surreptitiously teaching that failure avoidance is some kind of virtue.

How is it that such a philosophy penetrated our educational system?  It is easy to blame the colleges and universities for producing teachers and administrators who believe or have been indoctrinated into this way of thinking.  Or does it also have something to do with the purposeful elimination of competition? It is far more equitable and compassionate to award participation trophies and ribbons than just to recognize the winners.  With such a mindset, there is no recognition for victory and no lesson in defeat.  Why even play the game?  All the players who enter the arena shall leave as unmarked as when they entered.  There is no such outcome in the arena of life.  

There is no way to determine if a child will learn to accept defeat and treat it as a life lesson.  Children may view failure as a reflection of their inadequacies and life's unfair nature.  Or they may rise above their peers and develop a character where hard work and determination are woven into their DNA.  The point is that we have all failed and will fail at some point in our lives.  The question is whether we as a nation are willing to prepare the next generation for this inevitability so they may enter life's arena on solid footing.

Here are five ways school systems, educators, and parents can tackle the issue of failure avoidance.

1. Hold students accountable for their academic responsibilities.  When an assignment is given to a student, the natural expectation is for the student to complete the assignment and to complete it on time.  If the student does not complete the assignment by a given due date, the natural expectation is to receive a zero for the assignment.  Barring any unforeseen circumstances outside the student's control, the expectations above seem cut and dried. Unfortunately, this is generally not the case.  Students are given many opportunities to submit late work or resubmit subpar work.  This is becoming an accepted and almost expected practice with disastrous outcomes.   

2. Stop social promotions.  The practice of promoting or moving students to the next grade level or next content-specific class simply because he just needs to "move on" is inexcusable.  If a student has not actually satisfied the academic requirements, he should not move on.  School systems are doing the student and the next teacher a tremendous disservice by passing a student who does not truly meet the academic expectations.  More troubling is the fact that teachers feel pressured to pass students, not because the grade was earned, but to avoid having a potentially high failure rate.  This is a topic for another article, but the pressure is real, and students are being promoted who have no business being promoted.    

3. Resist putting the social and emotional needs of a student disproportionately above his academic needs.  We all understand the need for students to grow socially and emotionally.  This, however, cannot be at the expense of their academic growth.  Today's school counselors are spending less time discussing potential future careers and spending more time consoling anxiety-ridden children with daily mental breakdowns.  Can you ever remember a time when so many youths seem incapable of handling the slightest setback?  I agree there is no simple solution for this particular issue.  However, could it be that a student's inability to deal with setbacks has something to do with failure avoidance?

4. Do not purposely set students up for failure by treating education as a one size fits all.  When schools assume that most or all students will attend college, they automatically set up a portion of the school population for failure.  The limited capability to enroll students in vocational schools leaves many students wasting away in trigonometry when they would rather learn to wire a house.  This inability to service such students with the billions of dollars being allocated for education is appalling.

5. Instead of failure avoidance, treat failure as an opportunity.  There is always a lesson to be learned in failure.  Sometimes it may be a painful lesson. Other times it may be something as simple as "I cannot properly cook a pizza faster simply by turning up the oven."  Regardless, there is always a lesson.  When we start to think of failure as an opportunity to grow, the fear that causes avoidance may just transform into the courage you need to move forward.

Image: jarmoluk via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

If you experience technical problems, please write to