Success Means Nothing If Failure Is Impossible

I will tell you exactly the kind of job I want: one where my supervisor and my company are subject to legal and financial penalties if I do not do my job successfully.  If my employment experience is not proceeding satisfactorily, I will qualify for additional training by well-paid outside consultants who will have only one goal in mind—to ensure that the irrelevant fact I cannot do my job does not disqualify me for promotion.

This fantasy world rarely if ever exists in the private sector—unless, by chance, you are the only child of the business owner.  However, I fear that this is exactly the kind of fantasy world we may create in our public schools—one that will leave many young adults unprepared for life away from a public school system that will be legally obligated to shield them from their academic shortcomings.

My father often pointed out to me that there is a fine but distinct line between self-esteem and self-delusion.  Self-esteem is born from mastering challenging tasks where the possibility of failure exists; self-delusion springs from hearing you are more able than you actually are while living in the safety of a consequence-free cocoon.

States are currently permitted to set lower goals for high school graduation rates, but what originally drove No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation at the Federal level and made it so attractive was the idea that by 2014 all students would meet the Federally-mandated benchmarks for achievement in reading and math as measured by state-administered standardized tests.  Let me repeat that.  All.  Everyone.  100%.

I am not aware of any endeavor where 100% of students are proficient.  Whether it is playing a musical instrument, shooting a basketball, or writing an expository essay, normal variations in human ability usually mean some will succeed and some will fail.  This is the way of the world, and we benefit as a society when our teenagers move into their adult years with an understanding of their strengths and deficiencies based on their class work in public school.  How else can they expect to continue their lifelong learning with a clear sense of purpose?

If States are eventually pressured to all meet the original intent of graduating all high school students by 2014, requirements for passing grades will surely have to be lowered to ensure that “no child is left behind” and public school systems are not subjected to legal and financial penalties for “failure”.  Modifying the NCLB legislation to explicitly recognize that you cannot mandate success with a law—no matter how well intended it may be—would be a huge step forward.  The only other option is to continue to build gigantic loopholes into our measurements so every student achievement benchmark will met via creative interpretations of the word “progress”.

If we fail to thoughtfully re-examine this premise of NCLB, what might a high school diploma mean to an employer or a college in 2014 if we compel our schools to meet the original intent of the law?  Not much, I would hazard to guess.  Ironically, I suspect the importance of standardized testing of all types would dramatically increase as employers and colleges struggle to determine who actually learned something in high school—the diploma itself would be meaningless.  The public schools we may inadvertently create if we do not act today will produce the most perverse of all educational outcomes: All of our students will certainly meet federally mandated performance benchmarks and graduate—but no one will succeed because everyone will, by law, be required to succeed.

Moreover, what will be the reaction of tax-paying parents and their high school graduates when they discover that all those passing grades possibly meant nothing at all and a world far harsher than that those students were prepared to enter is waiting?  Even worse, will success in our public schools be failure in disguise for some of our most at-risk students?