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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It’s Time to Re-Think Failure

Ken Kerr Bio

My colleagues and I have noticed a change in our students over the past few years—the students don't think they can fail. Not all of them, and not all the time, but enough to be remarkable. Just out of high school, they don't think they will fail their classes regardless of how little time, effort, or attendance they put forth.

I had a phone call from one of our college councilors last summer who was calling on behalf of a student from the just-completed spring semester. She had my former student in the office and the student wanted to know why she had failed my class. According to the councilor, (yes, the student was there with her, but I was talking to the councilor) the student thought she was doing well in the class and was baffled as to how she could have possibly failed.

"She didn't do any of the work," I told the councilor.

She came to every class, even after I gave her written advice to drop the class after midterm when it was no longer mathematically possible for her to receive a passing grade. She was polite. She was present. Perhaps she believed Woody Allen when he said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." If that were the case, she deserved a "B."

It's not just her. Many of these new freshmen seem to believe we will not fail them under any circumstances. I asked some of the other students what this was all about. They told me that, in high school, if a student does nothing all semester long, he will just go to the teacher at the end of the semester and ask what he can do to pass. The teacher will give the student some paper to write with the promise of a "D." I don't know if this is true or not, but more than one student has told me so. Even if it's not true, it's what they believe—and they bring that belief to college.

It may not be their fault. Who can blame them? Lately, we have seen evidence on a national/global scale that confirms their belief—some people, some institutions, some businesses are so important, we can't allow them to fail.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), was originally proposed by President George W. Bush on January 23, 2001, immediately after taking office. These kids would have been in 5th grade at the time, just getting ready to enter middle school.

NCLB requires all public schools to administer a state-wide standardized test to all students each year. Those schools receiving Title I funding must make "Adequate Yearly Progress" in test scores. That means fifth graders must do better on this year's tests than they did on last year's. If it "fails" to do so, it is put on a list of "failing" schools. These failing schools are published in the local paper and the parents of children attending a failing school are given the option to transfer to a different, non-failing school. The failing school's Title I funding is cut, and it must provide federally mandated special tutoring for its students—at the local system's expense.

That's a high price for failure. It leads to gaming the system and teaching to the test. The schools can't afford to fail—so they don't allow themselves to fail.

On October 1-3, 2008 Congress passed The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. Within hours of its enactment President Bush signed the bill into law, creating a $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program to purchase "failing" bank assets. The banks could not be allowed to fail. They are too big—too important.

Earlier this month, executive from Ford, Chrysler, and GM arrived on Capitol Hill in private planes to convince Congress that the auto industry could not be allowed to "fail"—too many jobs at stake, too many families at risk.

Maybe it's OK to fail. Failure actually has a long tradition of success in Western history. Henry Havelock Ellis, 19th century social reformer, remarked, "It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success."

His contemporary, John Dewey, the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, said, "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes."

Still another contemporary, Thomas Edison, was fond of saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

This was America's Golden Age, a period from post-Reconstruction leading up to World War I where there was a general sense of optimism in America. We had a booming economy; we had realized our manifest destiny expanding our borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And Teddy Roosevelt was leading the new Progressivism. We believed in ourselves and our abilities. And a little failure was the price we paid for progress.

It was our Golden Age and our greatest minds were not afraid of failure? What has changed? Even up until the 1960's we had a different attitude about failure. Robert Kennedy said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."

There are still those who keep failure in perspective. Colin Powell insists, "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure." And Malcolm Forbes believes, "Failure is success—if we learn from it."

But perhaps the Chinese (who have been eating our lunch lately) have had it right for thousands of years: "Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up."

We need to rethink failure. We need to be brave enough to fail—and to allow each other to fail. If the stakes are too high, lower the stakes. Keep corporations from getting so big that they can extort us. Make large school systems into manageable sub-systems that can be more entrepreneurial and responsive to their particular population. Let the big three automakers go the way of the buggy whip factory. If they refuse to adapt to a changing environment, then they should fail. It's not like a new, modern; auto industry would not emerge to take their place.

The dinosaurs probably sat around convincing each other that there was nothing to this climate change thing and they, too, were too important an institution to be allowed to fail.

Let's not be dinosaurs about this. Let's put failure back in perspective. Failure can be good. Failure can be necessary. It may actually be a failure to keep something from failing that needs to fail.

Let's learn to live with failure, and let it make us better. It may be just what we need to enter a New Golden Age in America.


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