I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, March 11, 2011

Failure IS An Option

Years ago I had a student - let's call him Butch - who failed test. And I'm glad he did.

We were reading rhythms in my class; there is a system I use called Kodaly where each rhythmic duration is assigned a vocal sound (ta, ti-ti, too, etc.). I have my kids do a bunch of activities designed to get them to make the association between the written note and the sound. It's important that they become fluid enough at this to be able to decode the sounds to a steady beat.

Well, Butch just wasn't interested. He wiggled around in his chair; he stared at the walls instead of the music; he tried to distract the other children. I've had him long enough to know he's capable of performing the task; his problem that day was self-discipline.

After a series of different activities, it was time to assess. Each kid had to decode, on his or her own, a rhythm flashcard for me. Butch was one of the last students to go. He eventually decoded the rhythm, but not with a steady beat. After having seen and heard the others complete the task, Butch knew he had failed; I could see that he knew on his face.

I pulled him aside after class, and, Socratic method man that I am, I led him to the conclusion that his behavior had impeded his ability to learn. We agreed that I would remind him about this lesson during our next class. Learning is a long-term process; eventually, Butch was able to read the rhythms, and read them well.

My point in all this is that sometimes people need to fail in order to learn. Failure points out weaknesses. Failure demonstrates logical consequences. Failure motivates. Failure is a powerful tool for any educator.

But the corporate reformers - most whom are not teachers and have no first-hand experiences to draw from - want to take away that tool. By tying tenure, pay, and attrition to student achievement, they will ensure that teachers will do all they can to keep a child from failing - even when that failure is appropriate.

Those of you who are teachers know exactly what I'm talking about; those of you who aren't may be appalled. "When is it ever appropriate for a child to fail on a high-stakes test?" you ask.

- When an older child has lost self-motivation and self-discipline and needs a metaphorical kick in the pants.
- When a child or parent feels that a teacher is being unfair, even though the teacher is not.
- When a parent refuses to acknowledge that a child needs special help.
- When a parent or child blames past failures on a "personality conflict" with an earlier teacher; failure with another teacher establishes that teacher-student dynamics may not be the problem.
- When a parent or child has an unreasonable expectation based on the child's abilities.

I know that last one drives some of you crazy: "All children can learn!" Yes, they can, but not all children learn at the same rate and in the same way. Sometimes a child isn't ready for the next step. We seem to accept that some high school seniors are not ready for calculus; why don't we accept some third graders are not ready for the times tables?

We also have to remember that passing a standardized test is not always a measure of "learning." Even the corporate reformers accept that standardized tests are not perfect indicators of learning. You actually can "teach the test"; you can focus on "beating" the test in a way that masks deficiencies. The Princeton Review has made a lot of money based exactly on this premise.

If my pay was tied to Butch's ability to read the rhythm on that card, I would have done everything I could have to make him read it. I would have sacrificed his higher-order understanding of the task for rote performance. I would have set the target for performance as low as possible to be able to pass. I would not have worried about his intrinsic motivation; I would have bribed him or threatened him to get the result I needed for my own good.

In other words: I would have removed failure as an option for my benefit, not his.

We keep hearing that the needs of teachers should come before the needs of students. If that's true, why are we now using standardized tests to measure teachers instead of children? Shouldn't we allow failure in many cases if we want a valid assessment of a student?

Or have we become so deluded as to believe that every child's ability to achieve is the same, and the only variable that determines their success or failure is their teacher?

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