Conversation starter: Is failure an option?

Let’s talk about students failing classes, specifically in high school.

Let’s suppose a teacher spent the last ten years teaching high school math. Let’s suppose further that the same teacher hadn’t had a single student fail his or her class for that entire span. This teacher is going to have that data met with a fair amount of suspicion, whether it is fair or not.

Let’s suppose a different teacher spent the same ten years in a comparable district teaching high school math. Let’s suppose further that for that time span 3 out of every 4 students who started that teacher’s math class left with a failing grade at the end of the year. This teacher is going to have this data met with outrage (and in all likelihood would never have made it 10 years like that.)

So, ten years without a failing student is suspicious, it’s potentially evidence of a rubber stamp course. 10 years at a 75% failure rate is outrageous. It is potentially evidence of a course that is unnecessarily difficult for a high school math course.

So… what’s an acceptable number of failures?

Actually, let me ask this question a different way…

How many students should be failing? It seems a little strange to suspect that anyone should fail a high school course, but is there an amount of failures that demonstrate a class is healthy and functioning properly? Is that number zero? Is it 5%? 10%? 20%?

I’ll tell you what motivated this post: I am aware that some schools impose mandatory maximums of failure for their teachers. It might be 12% or 7% or 2%. In these districts, each teacher in the district needs to make sure that at least 88% or 93% or 98% of students earn passing grades for their class each semester.

The implication is that if more students than the accepted maximum fail to earn passing grades, it is a reflection on the inadequacy of the course, the instructor or the support structures. But, I’m not sure if that’s true. And besides that, how does a district or community decide the acceptable percentage of failures?

There is another side of this argument that says that a school should be prepared to fail 100% of their students if the students don’t meet the schools requirements. This is the only way to motivate students to reach for the standard of proficiency that the community has agreed upon. There would certainly never be an instance where a teacher had to fail 100% of his or her class, but if the students didn’t meet the requirements, the teacher would have the support of the school and the community to every student, even if that meant 100% of them.

We should probably figure this out because failure numbers are starting to work their way into the mainstream, as demonstrated by this Op-Ed from the New York Times which asserts that perhaps Algebra should be reconsidered as mandatory for high school graduation because nationwide, math provides a stumbling block and the subsequent failures are leading to increased dropout rates. (This seems like a highly contentious point in itself, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t driving decision-making in some communities.)

Here are the issues in play here:

What portion of the responsibility of a single high school student successfully earning a high school credit is the school’s and what portion is the student’s?

What are the costs of high standards? If we want to increase rigor, there is almost certainly a trade off in that there will be an increased number of students who are unable or unwilling to go through the more rigorous process to earn the credit.

What are the implications of community with class after class of students who know that the teachers are pressured to pass a certain percentage of their students? Is this effect overstated?

Has this ever been studied? I’m not sure if there’s ever been a comprehensive, research-based statement made on the topic of student failures and what the optimal percentage are. And if that’s the case, then should we be making decisions based on “what seems too high” or “what seems too low”?

I am looking for some conversation on this topic. Let me know what you think. Links to posts or articles by people that you trust are appreciated, too.

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2 thoughts on “Conversation starter: Is failure an option?

  1. One of the things that I have noticed lately at the high school level: suddenly, I have students who do not do their homework, do not complete the practice on the topic at hand and then overwhelmingly fail the summative assessment. The question they ask when they get the test/quiz back? “If lots of us are failing, what does that tell you?” My response now is “I have given this assessment before and did not see high failing numbers. I refuse to believe that you as a group are not as smart as last year’s students or the years before them. So, what it tells me is that you are not working at this.” But I am a bit concerned about coming years if this is the beginning of a trend. Is it that students are learning to work the system? Or are my standards no longer applicable to this generation? Neither scenario is attractive.

    • I’m not convinced the students are gaming the system anymore now than they were 30 years ago. It’s just that now the accountability on schools is so high that it is forcing us to consider things we’ve never had to consider before. So, this might be a trend, but we who are concerned need to continue to state those concerns so that the short term trends are properly checked and balanced.

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