Failure is no longer an option

by DaniGirl on April 23, 2009 · 17 comments

in Mothering without a licence, Rants and rambles

I wish I had a lot more time today to write about this subject, because it really fascinates me. There was an article in yesterday’s Citizen about how secondary school students in Ontario are no longer being failed for transgressions as serious as plagarizing. (When I was in university, it seems to me that was grounds for explusion, let alone failing an assignment.) The article notes:

Teachers are saying they are increasingly pressured to make sure students pass. If a student fails to hand in assignments on time, cheats, plagiarizes or doesn’t show up for tests, they can “rescue” their endangered credit. If the student fails, he or she can re-do the assignments they bombed and “recover” a wayward credit. Teachers are, as a result, concerned about “credit integrity” — whether a final mark awarded to a student who procrastinates, plagiarizes and bombs tests should be worth the same as the mark awarded to a student who earned a credit by the books the first time around.

This drives me crazy! It’s all linked to the Ontario Ministry of Education’s new and noble drive to increase graduation rates and decrease dropout rates. As the article notes, “While 68 per cent of students graduated from high school within five years in 2003-2004, the province aims to increase the graduation rate to 85 per cent by 2010-2011. Last year, 13,500 more students graduated from Ontario high schools than in the previous year.”

Well yes, they graduated, but can they write a paragraph? What will they do when they go off to university and have to actually do the work to pass, with thousands of dollars of tuition on the line? And what happens when they head out into the real world and they have a boss who isn’t interested in offering “rescue” or “recovery” options the first time they miss a deadline for an important project?

Call me a hardass on this one, but I think this is yet another way in which we’re coddling kids today and it’s really got to stop! In another article today that I couldn’t immediately find online, Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne said, “What we know for now from education research is that failing kids doesn’t motivate [them].” Well, passing them for shoddy work certainly isn’t going to do it, either!

I feel very strongly about this, in case you didn’t notice, but I also feel like the old fart waving her cane at the passing hooligans from her porch rocker. But seriously, I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be to be a teacher working in these times. Johnny failed the test because he was playing his Xbox all night instead of studying for the exam, but he’s sorry now and he’d like the chance to recover his credit, so Ms Teacher can you please redesign another test to give Johnny a second chance? Oh, and make sure it’s equally challenging, make special arrangements for a quiet time and place for him to write it, take extra time to mark it, and then help Johnny catch up on all the stuff he missed while he was taking his second test? Oh, he failed again? Oh well. Go ahead and start making up that third test for him.

I also see this as horrendously unfair to the kids who do try their best and who are going to learn in a righteous hurry that there is absolutely no reason for them to work hard or indeed work at all if the kid sitting next to them committing academic fraud and showing up only when it’s convenient ends up with the same damn diploma at the end of it all.

Am I reading this wrong? Have I got my knickers in a twist over nothing? (Can’t say that’s ever happened before.) Do you think the province is on the right track by mollycoddling kids through high school?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 andrea from the fishbowl April 23, 2009 at 7:53 am

Sure, some teenagers plagerize and cheat on exams, but I think expulsion is too harsh. Teenagers are just starting to figure out who they are. Of course they need to know how to read/write by the time they graduate, but don’t they also have a right to make mistakes and learn from them?

There are lots of people I know who were close to flunking out of high school for whatever reason (drugs, alcohol, plain stupidity) and turned out to be normal, well-functioning members of society with actual paying jobs. Isn’t this the ultimate goal of our educational system?

2 Mom on the Go April 23, 2009 at 8:03 am

I’d much rather see reasonable standards, properly enforced, with the extra efforts going to help the kids that need the support for legitimate troubles – whether drugs, learning disabilities, troubles at home. For the kids who flunk out for stupidity, lack of commitment, etc., I think that they need a chance to see how bad the world is for people with their skills/qualifications and then proper support when they’re ready to resume their studies. Of course, my definition of studies is broad – I’d like to see more applied studies and apprenticeships funded as part of secondary and post-secondary education.

Reid is in a private school right now because it solved the day care conundrum for us at the same cost as pre-JK day care. With what I’m reading and hearing about the public system (including from a friend who teaches), I’m seriously considering keeping her out of the public/publicly-funded Catholic system. It’s a cop out on my part – I should fight to better the tax-supported systems – but I’m not sure that I’m willing to gamble with her education.

3 hw April 23, 2009 at 8:15 am

I’m totally on the same page as you. It’s okay for kids to fail.

By not failing kids, and letting them grow/learn/earn rewards on their own merits, we’re creating a culture of entitled kids who think that they deserve to get As, have great jobs, earn lots of money, etc just by showing up! Or, even worse, the expectation that just because you try hard or put in a lot of effort that you deserve to do well regardless of the merit of the product you produce.

Failing in school is a low-risk way for kids to have consequences and learn from their mistakes.

Our system is set up right now for every kid to aim high and achieve at a similar level – to create a somewhat homogeneous pool of candidates. Not all kids should go to university. Not all kids should go to college. Our current system doesn’t recognize that kids have different aptitudes, nor does it recognize the differing learning styles that kids have.

Frankly, I’m just so disgusted with the whole system and how it works right now.

4 DaniGirl April 23, 2009 at 8:16 am

I’m not suggesting they get expelled for plagarism, Andrea (although it was a pretty good stick for me – I learned to cite my sources early!) but I do think if you knowingly violate a rule like plagarizing or cheating there should be a consequence, no? Otherwise what’s the point of having the rule?

Barb, I’m a huge supporter of the public system and from my albeit limited experience, I’m happy with it so far. But my kids are strong learners, so that helps. “Reasonable standards properly enforced” is an excellent approach, IMHO. What’s missing from the current policy is the “enforcement” bit.

5 DaniGirl April 23, 2009 at 8:17 am

HW, exactly! It only increases that sense of entitlement that seems so pervasive right now.

6 James April 23, 2009 at 8:58 am

I wrestle with this quite a bit as a high school teacher (in Texas). A large part of the problem is systemic. If a kid fails, he will probably be put back in the same class he failed before. It didn’t work out the first time and it typically doesn’t work out the second time. Flunking a kid does no good for anyone if the school doesn’t have a real plan for working with the kids who do fail.

7 James April 23, 2009 at 9:00 am

Having said that, there is nothing worse that trying to teach a class full of kids who didn’t master the material they were supposed to have learned the previous year.

8 ian April 23, 2009 at 9:04 am

I don’t agree with the whole ‘everyone is a winner’ attitude that is plaguing our schools… EVERYONE NEEDS TO FAIL! If you don’t ever fail, you will never grow or learn from your mistakes. We’re walking our kids through telling them everything is grand, little pats on the head, ribbons for first place/participation and then wonder why they can’t seem to figure things out in university, or as their careers begin.
Not everyone is good at school either, or at least the basics of school… and personally, I think the way school is currently setup is wrong too… still trying to develop nice little employees for big corporations, problem being they can’t operate on their own when that corp goes up in flames – or as now when the corps aren’t even hiring.
Time for some changes…

9 Rebecca @bitofmomsense April 23, 2009 at 10:02 am

I think there needs to be a happy balance – letting a student fail a test or project is an easy way, I think, to teach them how to handle such failures (without, necessarily, failing the whole class). But I think there are two groups that fall into this ‘should they fail?’ group – the ones that are looking for free rides, easy grades and don’t put the effort in – only to have their parents go to bat for them to ensure they didn’t fail (s/he had hockey practice etc) and then there are the ones who are academically struggling. Equally a concern, we often are passing students who are nearly illiterate to get them to the next grade – because failure is not an option. These students need early intervention – the self-esteem and stress of them failing or not moving on with their peers is different than the ‘slackers’.

So, I agree, kids should learn how to deal with failing, but the system needs to support them in their recovery as well – I think some kids honestly plagerize and truly don’t know it’s wrong.

Our expectation as parents needs to also change – we can’t always protect our kids from failure, and it certainly is a wrong lesson to tell them it wasn’t their fault – in some cases, maybe it wasn’t, but we need to guide them along the way.

10 -April April 23, 2009 at 11:16 am

Hi DaniGirl – New to commenting here but love your blog!

I have to say I couldn’t agree with you more on this topic. Working as an Academic Advisor within the University system for 5 years really had an impact on me. Without grade 13 and with younger kids entering University (who had been coddled through highschool etc.) resulted in huge failure rates. What happens is the University standards drop in order to protect their success rates as it’s such a numbers game.

The worst/saddest part is these kids – they’re getting away with being given second, third chances and they start to expect it…ALL OF THE TIME. I have had countless University kids (WHO SHOULD – let’s be honest – KNOW BETTER) fail an exam and come to me for advice begging for the prof to give them another chance or re-grade and telling me to do something that this is my problem to deal with!!! Clearly avoiding the fact that they need to work harder in order to succeed.

It’s a bad scene… with impacts on so many levels… and frustratingly, something that will be very difficult to remedy.

11 sky girl April 23, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Remember when the possibility of failing a grade or a class kept us on our toes? I think you’re right to be upset about this. We all should be. This system isn’t doing anyone any favours.

Being a teacher has got to be the toughest job around.

12 colleen April 23, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I think when most people fail and that includes students, they learn a valuable lesson. There is no free lunch in life and best they learn the lesson when it is free. I cannot imagine spending thousands of dollars at university and discovering failure for the first time.

13 Antique Mommy April 23, 2009 at 5:58 pm

I think it is a HUGE mistake and there will be a price to be paid. Plagiarism is the same as stealing, pure and simple. When I was in school the punishment was expulsion and oh the shame. The very thought was unbearable and probably deterred more than a few.

14 bea April 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Alas, it has now become routine that for a first offense, plagiarism is not punished with a grade of 40 or 45%, at least in cases where there is some original material in the essay and the student seems contrite. And I have an astonishing number of students this year who are simply not handing in their essays. Only one of those is getting an extended deadline, though, for fairly significant extenuating circumstances. A friend of mine who’s a high school teacher told me that they are not allowed to penalize students for missed work – they simply calculate the average based on the work submitted.

15 bea April 23, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Now punished, I mean. The first-time plagiarist gets a mark of 45% on the essay.

16 jennyandtim April 24, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Plagiarism is kind of a gray area, so I am willing to give students a bit of a break on bad citations or bad bibliographies. However, blatant cheating is at least an “F” on the assignment.

It is kind of sad that schools are pushing students through today through grade inflation or social promotion. It is especially sad to see a college freshman unable to write a coherent one page paper. Even sadder are the parents who do not let their children fail, and feel the need to be involved, and blame everyone else, when their precious little child messes up. I have vowed never to be that pathetic individual.

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