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Learning From Failure

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At this time of year, teachers, counselors, principals and superintendents are presented with the challenge of dealing with students who have failed to meet the criteria for moving on to the next grade or course. Often, difficult decisions must be made. We have to face upset or disengaged students and angry parents. In most cases, as experienced school and district leaders, we speak with the students, help the parents understand, and discuss summer school or next year's options. There is an opportunity lost if we don't do one more thing. These failures can offer important information if we are data gatherers, seeking causes for failures and patterns for the student and for the school.

The question of a child's failure is a complicated one. Why did a student fail? When did we know this was going to happen? Is it a matter of ability? Is there a problem at home? Have there been deficits that we have left unaddressed? Has the student connected with any adult in the building? Has the student been absent often? Has the student failed to do the daily work of the class or course? Was the student unprepared to take this class or course? If so, why? Is this a transfer student? Does the student come to school hungry? We all know the questions but do we seek the answers or apply our judgment? The time to really study this as a collective systemic problem is now. The opportunity is to answer those questions, not only for the failing child, but for all the children like her moving forward. "Where did we miss the mark?" needs to be the overarching question.

While these end of year meetings focus on what to do for a specific child, we need to be concomitantly planning to reduce the incidents of this particular failure happening again for any student. The student before us becomes a case study for where and how we failed. These meetings are surely different in an elementary school than they are in a high school, but, just the same, somewhere in this situation we are discovering how we lost a student this year. And, the conversation in its extreme form becomes one about retention.

Evidence abounds that retention opens a student to a myriad of paths diverting them from graduating as college and career ready. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, it is one of the most powerful predictors of high school drop outs. They report that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement and social and emotional adjustment.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have recently enacted policies requiring that students who do not demonstrate basic reading proficiency at the end of third grade be retained and provided with remedial services (Rose, 2012). Other states are discussing similar policies. Hence, there is a likelihood that retention will increase in the early grades. A Harvard study of Florida's third grade retention policy noted that "roughly 10 percent of American students are retained at least once between kindergarten and eighth grade, with the incidence of retention concentrated among low-income students and traditionally disadvantaged minorities" (Planty et al., 2009). Nonetheless, their data demonstrates some short term gains for those retained as measured by the state tests.

Surely, we have excuses for ourselves, but, the truth is, every student failure is ours also. Failure is an embarrassment for the student; it should be the same for us. This requires courage and thoughtful planning because it often involves examining currently held beliefs and behaviors. This does take time, but more than time, it takes a change in thinking and practice.

Author Alfie Kohn writes that the expectation children will learn from a failure is flawed. "..because failure can engender a feeling of incompetence (if not helplessness), future levels of achievement are compromised. Indeed, a bundle of research suggests that kids who fail at something are less likely to succeed the next time--even if they're perfectly capable of completing the second task" Kohn continues, "perceived competence comes from success experiences" (Kohn, 1999, pp.39-40).

So the idea that a failure is a learning experience that will contribute to a child's future success leaves out the essential ingredient - having the accumulated confidence and resilience to move from failure to success. We are not suggesting that students who fail should be simply moved along. We are suggesting we take the time to systemically study those who are failing, one course or a grade level, and make the changes to meet a goal of greatly reducing the incidence of these failures. That's a worthy summer project.

Daily, we are pulled toward putting out fires and managing issues. Surely, that is not what called us to assume leadership roles in the first place. Leadership is a matter of asking the right questions, at the right times, of the right people. It involves willingness to hear answers we don't like or that are contrary to our currently held opinion. It requires that we act upon truth, following through and following up. Leading is a forward motion, even though it comes accompanied by a rear view mirror. It might not take as much time as you think and it might produce a result we all want. Someday, wouldn't it be rewarding if we were not having meetings about students' failures, but about the celebrations for everyone's success.

Kohn, Alfie. (1999). The Schools our Children Deserve - Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards New York: Houghton

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., Ramani, A. K., Kemp, J., Bianco, K.,
and Dinkes, R. (2009).The Condition of Education 2009 (NCES 2009-081). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S.
Department of Education.

Rose, S. (2012). Third grade reading policies. Technical report, Denver, CO: Education
Commission of the States.

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