Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Redefining Failure

A couple of years ago I read an article in the Daily News about school officials in Britain who wanted to remove the word "failure" from the educational lexicon and replace it with the ridiculous euphemism "deferred success." In other words, if a child does not perform up to the minimum standard on an assessment, such as by answering too few questions correctly on an exam, we will not say that he "failed" that exam. The reason behind this, as stated in the article, was -- all together now -- we don't want the child to "feel bad" and "turn off to learning."

The only thing that really surprised me at the time was that it was happening in Britain, not here, though I'm sure it's crept its way across the pond. Many people have heard about this by now (Dana Carvey mentioned it last month on Real Time with Bill Maher), and thankfully it hasn't taken hold, at least not from what I've seen (the sentiment obviously has, but the euphemism hasn't). I only bring it up because I've been thinking a lot about what I wrote yesterday ["Twenty Questions" (June 5, 2007)], and I think there's a connection. The problem with the word "failure" is not that it makes kids "feel bad;" it's that no one seems to understand what it really means, least of all students, and yet no one wants to deal with it. Those who would solve the problem by simply eliminating the word "failure" and replacing it with a benign euphemism, regardless of their motivation, completely miss the point. They are correct that the word has power, but they are mistaken as to what that power is and where it comes from, let alone how to remedy it.

First, let's define "failure." What does it mean to "fail," in the general sense? My definition of failure is simple: the non-achievement of an achievable goal; a non-performance where performance is necessary or required and may be reasonably expected. Regardless of context, that is essentially what it means to fail. Now, toss yesterday's discussion into the mix: the economic model of grading (i.e., students start from zero and earn points by doing their work) on one side, and the entitlement model (i.e., students start from 100 and have points deducted along the way) on the other.

Under the economic model, a student can only fail as a result of inaction or deficiency. The student must complete and submit her assigned work in order to pass (i.e., earn 65 points or more), and also must perform at a certain level to demonstrate proficiency, learning, progress, and (eventually, hopefully) mastery, and thus be rewarded with a significant number of grade points. She must do her work to pass, and must do exceptional work to earn the highest grades. Therefore, the only way a student can "fail" under the economic grading model is if his work is substandard or deficient, i.e., below what he should reasonably be able to do at his grade level, or if he does not do the work at all, whether by choice or by negligence. This meets the basic definition of failure, supra. The student has an incentive to do the work and an incentive to demonstrate learning and thus increase his grade by producing higher-quality work product.

However, when we look at the entitlement model, and couple it with the ideas about blameworthiness which I also discussed yesterday, we realize almost instantly that the definition of failure, and the student's understanding thereof, must change under this scenario. Bearing in mind the necessary but mistaken belief that the student's grade should remain the same if she does not do her work, and that if she does the grade can only go down; i.e., where the student's final grade is a matter of how many points have been deducted rather than earned, the student now can only fail through action, and more to the point, profoundly negative and blameworthy action. If a student fails, it means she lost a significant number of points, that the teacher took them away, which could only have been the result of some terrible thing she did.

Regardless of whether the student (or parent) actually believes that he did something blameworthy to cause these points to be deducted, the perception nonetheless remains that a failing grade is some sort of proactive punishment; a "fine," if you will, a deprivation (unjust, of course) of something the student already possessed and to which he was rightfully entitled. A "failure" thus becomes tantamount to an accusation of grievous misconduct; "fail" becomes a transitive verb, an action taken by the teacher instead of a denotation of the student's performance. Hence students inevitably ask "Why did you fail me?" instead of "Why did I fail?"

Whereas under the economic grading model a failure means the student did not or could not obtain something, under the entitlement model it means the student has had something taken away. Whether we call it failure or "deferred success," this perception will not change.

It's no wonder, then, that the word "failure" is so upsetting to children and their parents. It has been made to carry a connotation which it should not, under any reasonable definition of the word, thanks to a misguided and counter-intuitive educational policy designed, like everything else, to make the children "feel good." Changing it to "deferred success" would merely sweep the problem under the carpet. The entitlement model of grading combined with the subjective performance standards I discussed earlier actually give students a powerful disincentive to do their work, learn, progress, and master their academic subjects. Why do your work if it can only make your grade average go down? Why try to improve when whatever your "best" is now will get you an "A" and allow you to keep that perfect 100 average you started with?

With all this talk about eliminating or redefining the word "failure," what about the meaning of "success" or "achievement?" Starting with nothing and earning 95 out of a possible 100 points is an achievement. Starting with 100 and only losing five along the way is not. In the real world, particularly in a merit-driven capitalist system like we have here in the U.S., success means making something out of nothing; taking what you have and gaining something more through skill, hard work, resourcefulness and perseverance. This is the lesson we need to be teaching our youth. Success is not starting with everything and ending up with only slightly less; it is not an accomplishment to merely avoid having what you already own be taken away, especially if you didn't earn it to begin with. Entitlements do not motivate people to better themselves.

Ultimately, I don't think the word "failure" needs to be replaced or even redefined; I think it needs to be better understood. So, too, do the words "success" and "achievement." These words should mean what they are supposed to mean, and nothing more.


Anonymous said...

Britain also wants to take the Holocaust out of the curriculum, so they are to be loathed as it is. Good riddance to them as the Pakistani jihadists are ready to nail them again. Students may not be "failing" but they're doomed.

Jay Braiman said...

You're welcome to your opinions, but if they concern things that are outside the subject of public education, please express them elsewhere. The scope of this blog is limited to an examination of the internal functioning and conventions of public secondary schools in the United States, viewed through the prism of the law and legal reasoning. No politics, please.

MBressi said...

This essay on the meaning of failure is something that should be read and reflected upon by high school students. I for one will be using this essay (if you don't mind) in my Advanced Placement English course for juniors this year. In that course I have planned a unit on the question, To What extent do our schools serve the Goals of a True Education? We will be reading essays by Emerson, Mann, Prose, Botstein, and others. I think it would be interesting to see how students respond to your discussion of failure. By the way, have you considered discussing the mayor's proposal to pay (with cash) low performing students when they improve their grades? I'd be interested in knowing what you think the implications of that idea may be. How insane it that?

Jay Braiman said...

Please, do go ahead and share this with your students. I agree that students need to be re-programmed about the meaning of failure. If they understood failure to mean something THEY did instead of something WE did to them, I think a lot fewer kids would fail.

The mayor's proposal about paying kids for improving grades will never actually happen, but to me it only implies one thing. It implies that the current system does not provide, or does not seem to provide, an adequate incentive for students to learn. In other words, it basically admits that students don't feel they have anything to GAIN by doing their work, or to lose by not doing it. Look at the discussion of entitlement grading (i.e., starting the school year with a 100 average) for further illustration of this concept. The mayor's proposal addresses the right problem but (obviously) offers the wrong solution.