Let Students Fail
I taught 9th grade English in a Missouri town called Stockton, which squatted between a lake (good for fishing), the woods (good for hunting), and the fields (good for cows). Several times, I met a fisherman or farmer who asked my profession, then said, “English teacher? I never was good at readin’ and writin’. But kids these days don’t even capitalize!”
It says a lot when even rednecks now look down on our education standards. They weren’t wrong. When I focused on teaching my students to capitalize properly, I was shocked at how hard it was. When I told them to capitalize every “I,” many of them then asked “Even when it’s inside a word?” So I said to capitalize “I” when it refers to “me.” One student then capitalized every “it’s” on the page, while another capitalized every instance of the word “me.” It took an entire semester and giving zeros for any assignment with capitalization errors before the class mastered capital letters.
You might assume that my students’ location explained their struggles: top scholars don’t tend to grow up on dirt roads. But rural, urban, and suburban schools earned similar reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). America’s educational woes aren’t region-specific; they’re endemic to the entire system.
Just how bad is the situation? It’s hard to quantify just how behind American students are, since the NAEP, the only national test for students in all 50 states, uses a confusing standard by setting the bar for “proficiency” well above grade-level standards. This skews results to appear far bleaker than they actually are by declaring many students who meet grade level expectations to be below proficiency.
Global metrics paint a clearer picture. American students ranked about average on the 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (which is administered to 15-year-olds). The US was outperformed in reading, math, and science by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Finland, Ireland, South Korea, Poland, and New Zealand. Meanwhile, the UK, Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands placed ahead of the US in math and science but behind the US in reading, while Russia, France, and large swaths of Europe only managed to beat US in math. The US’ scores aren’t bad relative to the rest of the world; they’re just not the scores you’d expect from the country that houses 38 of the world’s top 100 universities and 13 of the world’s 20 largest tech companies. Judged against America’s own reputation as the greatest superpower on the planet, that middling ranking is a disappointment.
Yet Americans did stand out on the PISA in two respects: the US was the only country where students with a higher sense of belonging at school performed lower in reading, and American students testing below proficiency had the highest expectations about their future success. American students believe, irrationally, that education is irrelevant to their futures. As someone who’s spent five years teaching at a public school in Missouri, I can confirm this. The average American student is shockingly ignorant, lazy, and entitled.
The average American student is shockingly ignorant, lazy, and entitled.
As a result, today’s students aren’t equipped for adulthood, with one-fourth of high school graduates unable to pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test and nearly 40% of college professors agreeing that “most of the students I teach lack the basic skills for college-level work.” In a survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), only 27% of employers from a range of industries thought college students had adequate writing skills.
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Schools are just as eager as students to lessen the difficulty of schooling. Today, few students still learn phonics, spelling, sentence diagramming, or even grammar itself. Studies show that phonics and spelling tests turn children into better readers, and explicit grammar instruction improves student writing — but such detail-oriented subjects are out of vogue.
The English curriculum is being watered-down. The National Council of Teachers of English has announced that “The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.” It recommends replacing the study of books with the study of digital media and pop culture, as if this requires the same rigor. Today, few English teachers have the patience to teach the classics anymore.
Another priority, inclusion, sounds nice in theory: lumping all students — including those with severe behavioral issues — together into one classroom. In a Public Agenda survey, 85% of teachers and 73% of parents agreed with the statement, “The school experience of most students suffers at the expense of a few chronic offenders.” A study on children who had been exposed to domestic violence found that their presence in the room worsened their classmates’ academic success and behavior, and regular exposure to peers with behavioral issues decreased students’ amount of completed education and adult earnings. The more students with behavioral issues I had in one room, the more class time I spent simply managing them; even a “successful” day with just a few outbursts distracted me from focusing on the lesson.
Then there’s the parents. Helicopter parents are the scourge of American schools. Their anxiety and control-freakery prevent their children from achieving the very success they try to ensure. Parents who solve kids’ problems for them teach them helplessness, initiating a cycle as they then perceive that helplessness as another reason to rescue them. One student baffled me with his inability to write, even when I brainstormed with him. Other teachers then informed me that his mom did his homework, but without proof of this, the recommendation was to avoid a pointless fight and let her keep him incompetent.
Picture Credit: Greg Williams
Behind many entitled students stand entitled parents. One set of parents threatened to sue the school when they were informed in the middle of the semester that their daughter had F’s in almost every class; seven teachers must have been lying, since she swore she had turned in all her homework. Because the administration feared upset parents, the principal pressured me to accept her missing work when she turned it in on the last day of school. She only learned one thing that semester: that lying and manipulation worked.
Behind many entitled students stand entitled parents.
The bottom is dropping for everyone. Educational requirements are softening for lower achievers, and at the same time, gifted students are overlooked.
Gifted programming often provides advanced students with their only chance to learn more than the bare minimum. I saw this play out in my first year of teaching, when 9th graders in the same classroom ranged from a 3rd-grade reading level to a 12th-grade reading level. The weakest students took up all my time, whilst the advanced students maintained an A+ without my help. I knew they’d sail through high school on their own just fine — and that’s the problem with advanced learners. They’re too easy to neglect, as if passing them based on what they can already do is as good as pushing them to climb higher.
That’s why the next year, I requested an honors section, which gave me the space to craft each student the challenge he or she needed. My honors class took literary discussions to philosophical heights and wrote essays more complex than I assigned. When I passed out modernized copies of Homer, they revolted and demanded a full-text version of the original, so that’s what we read — all 24 books of The Odyssey, unabridged. Pulling them away from the regular environment of lazy defeatism created a setting where they could reignite their passion and curiosity.
So it galled me when an exceptionally gifted former student was denied entry to an advanced charter school because he didn’t meet diversity requirements. No student should ever be denied an opportunity because of their race. But his situation bordered on the absurd, because he wasn’t even white — he was Filipino.
The left-wing bias against Asians in American education is well-known. Since they tend to be overrepresented in good schools and gifted and talented programs, relative to their share of the population, Asians are often seen by those on the left as “taking more than their fair share,” as taking seats away from black and Latino students in particular, who, due to their lower academic performance, tend to be underrepresented in these places. As a result, many left-wing educators have taken to discriminating against high-performing Asian students, giving the opportunities that are rightfully theirs to lower-performing black and Latino students in the name of diversity. Evidently, raising students up to a competitive level is too challenging; it’s easier to pull high performers down or shove students into advanced programs based on race rather than merit. As a result, many promising students may be denied the opportunity to reach their full potential; without mentorship and education at an appropriate level, they might become merely good workers, when they could have blossomed into our nation’s top talent, ready to tackle our most complex problems.
But helping high-performers reach even greater heights isn’t a priority in education right now. It’s common for educators to overlook advanced students and focus on trying to fix the most broken kids in the building. Education, after all, attracts bleeding hearts who settle for a skimpy paycheck because they want to help students. It’s easy for such people to end up spending all their time being a therapist for problem kids, whilst neglecting the A students, who are usually well-adjusted.
It’s common for educators to overlook advanced students and focus on trying to fix the most broken kids in the building.
Over the years, though, I’ve felt a growing conviction to perform my job as an educator first and foremost; it’s a school, not a rehab program. The culture of education often broadcasts the message that teachers’ primary work is not college and career preparation but emotional nurturing. “Our goal is just to love kids,” fellow teachers and administrators often told me, or, “Kids will forget the content you teach them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.” But schools are just schools – it’s not for them to fix the problems caused by broken homes and shoddy parenting, and if they try, that will leave little time left for their primary responsibility: educating students.
In American schools, you get little credit for investing in high-achieving students; it’s only hip to devote yourself to the underperformers. But 20 years from now, everyone will be best served if society has brilliant doctors who can pioneer the fight against disease and ingenious engineers who can build the technologies the country needs to keep its edge. If everyone emerges from youth halfway educated and halfway confused, everyone will suffer.
I wish I could say I helped save the system, but the truth is that, after years of feeling complicit, I simply quit. I loved my students and grieved each goodbye, but I hated constantly letting them down. I was tired of watching my school prioritize the handful of kids who squandered whatever opportunities you gave them while ignoring the students who would have made full use of them. So I walked away from the whole broken game.
I can tell you my solution, though it’s only a fantasy: let students fail.
That’s it. Raise expectations across the board; raise what it takes to earn an A so advanced students are forced to work hard to get one. And if students fail, don’t offer extra credit or end-of-semester mercy projects. It’s not the duty of an educator to give kids an endless series of second chances. Sometimes you have to let students face the consequences of their choices, because consequences are better teachers than you’ll ever be. Even if you have to let most of a senior class fail instead of graduating, do it — because younger classes would take things more seriously after that. By sacrificing a few, we would save the many, and a diploma would mean something again.
Sometimes you have to let students face the consequences of their choices, because consequences are better teachers than you’ll ever be.
Students should be held to a behavioral standard as well and removed to a special education or alternative classroom (a separate educational setting with instructors who specialize in supporting students deemed at risk of dropping out) if they do not control themselves after multiple warnings and lesser consequences. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act only requires that students with disabilities be included in the regular classroom “to the maximum extent appropriate.” If students with emotional and behavioral disorders are unable to function in a regular learning environment, it is appropriate to give them more focused attention in a special education classroom. Likewise, schools need to maintain alternative classrooms for especially disruptive students without disabilities, which not only improves the environment of the regular classroom but also gives at-risk students extra resources and attention.
Unfortunately, the idea of letting students fail is a pipe dream. It wouldn’t work financially, since school districts’ funding is typically tied to attendance: if too many kids failed and dropped out as a result, many teachers would lose their jobs. Plus, most districts abound with entitled parents, who would come after the school with pitchforks and vote in new school boards if their kids were held back.
American schools are broken, and I’m trying to accept my own inability to fix the system. My infant son sleeps on my lap as I write this; I plan to homeschool him so we can explore the scientific mysteries and literary nuances I learned in school. For now, I tutor the students who want extra help because that’s what I still believe in. I save my energy for those who are open to growth, every one of them an ocean of hope.