Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Tweetist/blogger Jennifer Borgioli Binis has often expressed frustration with how often people play fast and loose with the word "fail," some of which she has piled up into a blog post. This whole post is really for her, because 140 characters is never enough.

I get some of her frustration. "Fail" is a harsh word to throw around, particularly in the vicinity of children. When my kids were little, their mother and I tried to never say that they had failed at something, but that they hadn't succeeded yet. When my school put together the local version of the state-mandated graduation project, we deliberately did not offer a "failing" rank on the evaluation-- instead, it just goes straight to what still needs to be completed successfully.

By the same token, formative assessments, meant to answer the question "so how are we doing," shouldn't have a "failing" grade. The assessment is supposed to provide information, like a diagnostic hookup of your car by a mechanic, or blood tests by your doctor. It's not supposed to be a matter of "did you pass or fail" but instead "so what do we need to work on next." There are some well-intentioned people out there who apparently really expected that the Common Core Big Standardized Tests would be like that-- just information for tuning up the engine, with no pass or fail attached. These people were kidding themselves.

But, Binis asks, don't writers like Jessica Fahey (The Gift of Failure) suggest that failure can be a good thing, a strengthening thing. Is failure good? Bad? Damaging? Strengthening? A fair term, or an inaccurate description of particular outcomes? All of the above? Binis is correct in arguing that "fail" is being asked to carry a lot of weight, a wide range of meanings.

At its simplest, "fail" just means "didn't hit the mark, clear the bar, or meet the goal." That's why even an eight year old who's been told their reading scores were "below basic" understands that she just failed the test. But it's what happens next that gives it the emotional freight.


Failure is scary, or not, hard, or not, depending on the consequences attached to it. Failing to successfully complete a level in a video game in which one has infinite lives is not such a big deal. That's what makes it an intriguing literal game-changer when someone designs a game with perma-death; new consequences create a new relationship with failure. That's also why there's a difference between telling an eight-year-old, "Take this reading test; if you fail, it won't affect you at all" and "Take this test; if you fail, you'll be held back a grade."

"Failing public schools" has been a trickier phrase for several reasons. First, we have no cultural consensus on what The Goal of public schools might be, so ed reform has been like a darts game in a pitch-black room with just one tiny night-light in the corner. Reformsters have said, "Let's throw darts at that. Is it the target? Who knows-- but we can see it, so it will do."

But more importantly, reformsters have tied "failure" to punishment. At no time under NCLB, RTTT, or waiverpalooza, was there a policy that said, "We will find the failing schools so that we can get them the resources they need to do a better job." In fact, policymakers were frequently quite clear that they believed (and so policy also believed) that additional resources would not help. Instead, "failing" schools were given the choice of firing administrators, firing teachers, firing everybody, or just shutting down the school.

Policymakers also rigged the game as far as attributing the failure. No policy of the last decades has said, "Once we find the failing schools, we will know where federal, state and local officials have failed to properly support schools, and we will hold those federal, state and local officials accountable."

It's worth noting that the failure refrain hasn't abated a bit, even as the failing teachers in failing schools narrative has, well, failed. In this morning's New York Times, you can find Michael "Soft Bigotry" Gerson complaining that ESSA does not do enough to root out failing schools and teachers.

Where failing loses its power to create fear and consternation is where it gives up its power to punish. But some people feel that failure without punishment is just wrong.

I understand the source of that as well; nature is full of built-in punishment for failure. Fail to eat decent food, and you suffer. Fail to properly respect the power of gravity, and you suffer. Fail to jump all the way across that chasm, and you will suffer. Certainly this means that punishment-for-failure is just nature's way, right?

Maybe. But when we talk about things like Big Standardized Tests, we're not talking about nature. We're talking about shit that humans just made up. And that takes us back to goals-- what do you want to accomplish? And a large chunk of the human race is convinced that you drive people to achievement by whipping them in your chosen direction. And we consequently constantly reinforce the idea that failure will result in something Really Bad happening to you.


In life, bad things happen. The human response to that Fact O'Life falls into two categories. First, I can try to live my life in such a way that I think Bad Things are unlikely to happen to me. Second, I can try to live my life in such a way that I will be strong enough to handle whatever bad things come up.

Your preference can depend on how permanent you think failure is. If you fail, is that who you are, or just what you did?

I have plenty of personal thoughts about this, most dating back to my graduation from Divorce School (a great education, but probably not worth the cost of tuition). I have never, ever, felt like such a huge failure in my life, never been more certain that I was a permanent Fail at life. The path forward for me was to decide that fail was something I had done, not who I actually was. That, in fact, using the notion of failure as an excuse to quit, call game over, give up was a cheat, that if anything, my failure gave me an obligation to Do Better.

If you assume failure is a permanent state, there's no next move, nowhere to go, nothing to do but curl up and wait for the cudgel to fall on you. If you assume that failure is just a condition of the moment, there is much to do about moving on to the next day, learning, trying to do better.

Now. Which of those views do you think is modeled by a Big Standardized Test that is only given once a year but which carries large, punishing consequences?

If we want students to view failure as information about how they're doing and how they can do better, we need systems and assessments that model that view. The waves of reform have given us the exact opposite.

One Last Thought 

There's another way to define failure-- "not meeting a set of expectations." This is helpful for me (as someone who has failed many times at many things) because it lets us step back and look at those expectations. Whose expectations are they? What are they based on? Are they reasonable? Are they useful? Is there any reason to think that meeting them really matters?

It is perhaps surprising to notice how often the answer to that last question is "no." Often the best way to grow from failure is to recognize that you have failed to meet an artificial expectation with no real value, no real meaning. And there is your explanation of the success of the Opt Out movement in New York.

The "matters" question is also the answer for why so many punishments have been artificially attached to the BS Testing regimen-- because it is so obvious to so many people that these tests don't really matter, we'll just attach punishments to them so that people must take them seriously. Punishment is often the go-to method for making people value artificial made-up goals that have no intrinsic value.

But opening up your understanding of expectations doesn't just help you understand how to grow from and get past failure-- it helps you understand that what looked like failure was really just a badly set expectation. You missed the target because you set the target in the wrong place.

As a teacher, I struggle daily with reflecting all of this understanding of failure and expectations and growth and resilience in my classroom practices and assessment approaches. Much of my frustration with the reformster agenda is that it runs directly counter to this (even when it tries to say it doesn't). I agree that "fail" is a loaded word, but right now in education the deck is stacked against it.


  1. Your One Last Thought on expectations and what matters is quite insightful.

  2. I'm glad you took the time to reply so thoughtfully to Jenn. She did consulting for Webster, NY, nearly 10 years ago, and although I don't always agree with her perspective, she is sincere and wants to do the right thing for students.

  3. I just don't see any important role for "failure," or for tests that have passrates, or any other assessment that sets a bar, in education. Babies learn to walk and talk without any tests. They don't construe their frequent face plants as "failures." Children in serious athletic or musical programs don't piece out their training in tests that they pass or fail. They just keep beavering away at whatever they are doing, under the eye of someone who coaches them through the challenges, until they get it right.
    I've said it before: pass/fail exams are *entry* points, not assessments.Students should pass exams to be admitted to the bar, or the medical profession, or whatever. People should not use tests as *exit* visas - to say that until you have succeeded to this level you can't move on. It's pedagogically worthless.