Fail fast… or not at all?

It’s been a few years since I have failed a student. Usually, the extensive scaffolding, phone calls home, opportunities for retakes and frequent attention/harassment I provide are enough to keep everyone on track, at least enough to earn an honest D.

In the few cases where they are not — the student who rarely comes to class, won’t complete assignments, doesn’t respond to offers of help — a counselor finds a way to quietly withdraw the student from class. Or the student just stops coming to school and disappears from the rolls.

So I suppose I don’t have to worry, personally, about the trend that has us eliminating Fs from our report cards, GPAs and transcripts. Like a handful of other schools, we are moving toward an “incomplete” model based on mastery learning, where students get Is instead of Fs and always get another chance to pass.

And yet, I still find this move deeply unsettling. What does a passing grade mean, if there is nothing else? What incentive is there to work now, if you can always finish it later?

I know a little of the research on grading; for example, that while good grades may motivate, low grades (and Fs) seldom serve to turn around student performance. (See this ACSD article.)

Students who rack up Fs, especially during freshman year, are much more likely to give up and never graduate from high school, and these are often our underserved students.

I also know that some teachers don’t put enough effort into preventing failure on the front end, and we don’t help students by merely sorting them into success and failures on the back end.

But as an amateur economist, I have to wonder what kind of incentives we are putting in place and what kinds of effects they might have.

I recently spoke with a University of Minnesota professor who said he was no longer allowed to give Ds, in line with the view advocated in this Atlantic magazine article. As writer Andrew Simmons argues, “If Ds are markers of adequacy that everyone regards as inadequate, doling them out seems illogical and cynical.”

From the professor’s perspective, though, this move has put pressure on professors to give out undeserved Cs instead, which contributes to grade inflation and serves no one.

Similarly, when high school teachers are given every incentive not to give Fs — and there is a fair amount of paperwork involved in reporting an I — they will give undeserved Ds.

That might not sound like a big issue — and our graduation rates will go up —  but it means that even more students may be earning diplomas without the commensurate skills to be successful in jobs, postsecondary training and life. Already, most graduates report feeling ill-prepared for college or work (see this Achieve.org report), and wish they had learned more in high school.

On an entirely different note, I find it incongruous that we’re working so hard to eliminate failure in K-12 education at the same time experts like Carol Dweck and Eric Ries are arguing that we need to “learn from failure” and “fail fast, fail cheap.”

In the business world, failure is the cause célèbre, while in education, it’s the elephant in the room.

I don’t know what to make of all of this, except that it seems like we’re losing sight of our goal, which isn’t simply to graduate every student but to graduate every student with the skills and knowledge they need to compete in today’s world.

I’m reminded of a student from my second year teaching at Mounds View. He was a nice kid but not a hard worker, and he had missed several critical assignments during the Civil Liberties course. In lieu of writing his essay final, he wrote me a long, emotional note explaining why I should pass him rather than fail him.

I thought about it for several days, and finally decided to write him a letter explaining why I gave him the F. I sent it to him, along with his essay, and wished him well. Several years later I was eating with friends at a local restaurant, and this young man spotted me and came over to talk. He thanked me for my letter, and my concern, and said that failing that class actually taught him an important lesson, and he had turned his life (and work ethic) around.

If the end result of our F-elimination plan is that more kids take advantage of second chances, figure out how to master challenging coursework and earn their diplomas, I’m all for it. But if all we do is make it easier to graduate, and further denigrate the value of a diploma, then we are seriously missing the mark.

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