Culture of Failure

Is it possible to create a culture of failure?

My school is currently being asked to discover why the Freshman failure rate is so high. 1/3 of the Freshmen failed a class during their first semester in high school, and statistically speaking 30% of Freshmen who fail a course in their first high school year do not graduate. That is frightening!

In my department alone 1/4 of the Freshmen failed their first high school English class. Because of this, these students will either have to take an online equivalent (though they really aren’t), take a credit retrieval course after school, or repeat the failed course the next year (taking away an elective and doubling up on a subject with which they struggle).

After looking at much of the data, my department now has a list of contributing factors to the failure rate:

  • low reading levels upon entering the high school,
  • a history of failure stemming from middle school,
  • an allowance to remain in ELL programs from elementary and middle school,
  • apathy,
  • little value placed on education at home,
  • assignments not turned in,
  • organization problems,
  • attendance
  • course requirements not met,
  • no interventions immediately available during the school day, and
  • class size.

Absent from the list are the curriculum and effective instruction. Because of the collaboration occurring in the department and the annual revamping of the curriculum, the group did not think these two items should make the list especially with the primary focus of the district’s professional development centering on pedagogy.

The two items which have been my department’s calls for assistance are class size and reading levels. However, we are told that we must improve the failure rate before we’ll get help with these two areas.

I have suggested one solution which the department controls: to work with individual students during the second semester to help them pass the first semester class. Since Freshman English is a year long, the teachers would still have the same students for second semester and could work with students to show first semester skills. Also, if a student finished with a 50% or greater first semester and earned a 70% or better during the second semester, the teacher could change the first semester grade to a ‘P’ for pass (doesn’t affect GPA) or a ‘D’ grade. We currently have 1.6 teacher FTE dealing just with failures, and we could relieve some of this burden by helping students pass more classes.

My favorite solution is standards-based grading, but I think the department isn’t ready for that quite yet.

My firm belief is that this is a systemic problem. Students regularly admit that they are able to fail their middle school classes, and they still get to enter the high school, of course, often lacking the skills to succeed. Also, there is a district-wide focus on standardized testing forcing students to become excellent test takers without fostering curiosity and a love of learning. Middle school students test monthly.

Anecdotally, one student was overheard saying “I don’t have to worry about the grammar and punctuation. It’s only two points, and the rest is worth 10 points.” Since the students only need eight points on a writing prompt to pass, she is right. There have been some changes to state test scoring, but part of my point is that the students have reduced writing–and education in general–to point acquisition. A couple of common questions are “How many points is this worth?” or “Is this on the test?” or How many points do I need to pass?”

I’m not sure what all of the answers are, but I do know that I don’t mention the state test unless I have to do so and my students do just fine. Granted, this year I have honors students, but my mainstream students have done well in the past, too, usually with over a 90% passage rate.

However, I (and my department) need help with increasing reading levels and decreasing class sizes. I do believe the system is responsible for much of this problem, and it requires systemic change, not change solely focused on the classroom.

What do your schools do to combat Freshman failures?


14 thoughts on “Culture of Failure

  1. megevil

    Hmmm. This supports a theory that some of my colleagues and I developed in a moment of frustration last month: there was something in the water or in planetary alignment that has caused the class of 2011 to be, er, challenging. 🙂 In all seriousness though, it’s interesting to hear that you are having the same experience on the other side of the country as we are over here. I have taught at three different high schools, and am in a research group with teachers/professors/PhD students and we have each verified that at our respective schools this year’s freshman class failed courses at twice or three times the rate of other students. I just finished a grant proposal that is all about meeting the different needs of this class – it involves interactive technology way beyond what most classrooms currently use.

    I am a firm believer that (a) the problem is cultural more than school-related, and (b) schools DO, however, play a part – we have standardized-tested them to the point where we can no longer provide them with adequate AUTHENTIC learning experiences, so they have lost interest in school at a higher rate.

    Somewhere in here there is a thought relevant to your post; however, I think it has gotten lost in all of the coffee I drank this morning.

    I love your blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. mrschili

    I think we DO have a culture of failure, and there’s a LOT contributing to it. I’m experiencing this with Punkin’ Pie, my 5th grader. She’s taking the attitude that school doesn’t matter, that she doesn’t NEED any of this, and that failing is ‘no big deal.’ I’m a TEACHER and her father’s an engineer and we value education very, VERY highly in this household. The attitude is coming from someplace other than the home.

  3. drpezz Post author

    In our meetings an easy place to lay blame is the parent, but parents can’t be responsible for all of the students’ failures. I know we battle “it’s cool to be dumb” every year, and the ASB elections speeches just confirmed this attitude is still prevalent. Too many kids wanted to look cool and sound dumb. Ugh!

  4. Anonymous

    I know exactly what you mean. We are having the same problem at my school. I teach math where there is a STRONG push for passing the state tests in 7th and 8th grade. The school where I teach has been cited by the state because we have had such a low passing rate year after year. Because of this, 7th and 8th grade teachers have basically been teaching to the test. Which everyone on our department has a problem with doing.

    Once these students enter the 9th grade, they are used to being taught in that manner. They have been taught to memorize and perform steps, with absolutely no higher-level thinking. In high school, students should become more actively involved in learning and should be able to construct their own knowledge. Either through projects, group work, or activities. Formulas are no longer given to them, so they have no idea how to use their prior knowledge to find it themselves.

    I have found that this is one of the major reasons why the freshmen are failing in my building. They don’t know how to “think” about what they are learning.

  5. MadelineG

    I just read an article for a class (granted it was not that recent, published in 1999)about how NYC schools were putting an end to social retention. The article said that 21,000 NYC public school students had to repeat a grade after failing to fulfill mandatory summer school requirements. The stats on the students were 35,000 students were in summer school, 14,000 never took the test to pass summer school, 13,000 passed the test and 7,500 failed. This shows how many students put little worth on passing grades. Also, there is probably not much reinforcement of school work at home, since 14,000 students never even took the test. After-school programs and increased funding for tutoring programs can combat this. However, I think that the problems stems down to students’ motivation, so teachers must find a way to try to motivate students. This is difficult, since like Jen said, teachers are practically being forced to teach to the test and forget about higher-level thinking. How do we motivate students?

  6. flojo

    We are reading from a text that looks at teh importance of writing in the content area. many researchers believe that if students are taught to write in all subject areas then they will be able to transfer learning across disciplines and hence retain more of what is taught. Many times students fail a subject that is perceived difficult to them because they do not understand the vocabulary of the subject. Teaching Math is a classic example of students confusing words from other content areas with the genre of the subject. We are not dismissing the research done on NYC public school, however, how these students are taught and where administrators place emphasis prolongs the system of failure.

  7. barretom

    As a teacher who has worked in the middle school and high school level, I think there is much to be done to help these students. I am a product of the NYC school system and a former teacher of the same system. There is so much going on in the schools that it is difficult to put blame in one place. There are teachers who should n’t be working in the system, there are administrators who do their best to pass the blame to someone else, there are parents who do not care because they do not understand what is happening in the schools, and of course there are students who truly do not care about school and make it difficult for those who want to learn.

    Many parents have a diffcult time trusting the schools that their children go to because of past experiences with teachers and administration or because they are not educated themselves. This inferior complex can get in the way. You also have parents who know the importance of education and do there best to encourage their kids but they still have a hard time trusting the schools because most of the people in charge do not represent their race/culture.

    While teaching in NYC, I rarely had a problem getting support from parents and my administration. I was lucky to work with a very good staff. In the middle school, we tried to avoid teaching to the test because we knew this would hinder the students once they moved on to high school. Even with all the test prep that I had to do, I would remind students almost everyday that school was more than just taking a test. I tried my best to get students to think about the works we read as it related to them in their lives. This helped. We need to stress to our administrations that we need to change the way the exams are emphasized. By teaching kids how to take ownership of their education, we will in fact be be preparing them for the test.

    I feel like I side tracked from the main question. Our schools need to change but we need to start that change from the top down. Changes need to start at the education department so they can trickle down to the schools. There is place for testing but the way it is now, it is doing more harm than good.

    In the high school, I worked with students who had been expelled from various schools for various reasons or who had been incarcerated or pregnant and were returning to school to get their diploma. This was a tough group but they understood that learning was more than test taking. They understood that the test was something they had to do and that their education would help them in their future.

  8. jdefayette

    We are having the same exact problems with freshman failure rates. I teach 10th grade earth science and each year my class size gets a little smaller and the biology (9th grade) class gets bigger. It takes two teachers to teach all the biology classes and one to teach all the earth science classes. Our school is currently trying to combat what seems to be a widespread epidemic. I agree with the idea that way too much emphasis is being put on tests, and that is the only thing kids are worried about. Regurgitating information for a test and then forget about it.

    One thing we do at our school is create a failure list. Anyone who is failing 2 or more courses are on it and assigned to a classroom for 10th period. 10th period is a 30 minute class where students can get help on anything they need. There are varying degrees of success with this. For me it is extremely helpful in getting kids to get their labs done. We are also in the process of creating a class for freshman that will teach them how to organize and other skills that will help make them successful.

  9. barretom

    When I started high school, it was required to take two summer classes that helped with the transition into high school from middle school. I think this was helpful for many students. Most of my graduating class completed high school in the four years. The people I know who dropped out left for reasons other than failing and being left behind. A few people left because they became pregnant or use drugs and they couldn’t return to school. I know things are different today but it may be beneficial to require students to attend summer classes before their freshman year to help them adjust to the changes in the schedule and school work they will be doing. It would help to target those kids who were not as successful in middle school as they should have been.

    Any ideas or thought on this?


  10. flojo

    The culture of failure is systemic as Barretom suggested. Too many persons are involved in teaching our children who simply have no interest and are just earning a paycheck. The blame or discussion on failure cannot never be onesided, but we need to get rid of those who make the burden heavier.

    Parents can play a very effective role in ensuring that their children succeed. Students at the High school level tend to need much more ‘guidance’ and encouragement in order to graduate. Teachers need to spend a little more time understanding the diversity and culture of public school students and try to end this culture of failure. Many administrators do not want their school to be seen as failing, therefore they push teachers to teach towards the ‘test’ in order for students to be able to recall and ‘pass’ the test.

  11. flojo

    Failure in High school has become more ethnic and socio economically based than mere inability to learn. The school districts thst are categorized by their ethnic makeup tend be poorer anf hence the quality and level of teaching are also poorer. many students who come from economically deprived communities tend not to see education as important to their socisl upward mobility and will drop out of school easier if they are not getting the grades that is considered optimal. The culture of failure is not only in the school , but also in the communities.

  12. barretom

    Flojo I think you have a point there. However being educated myself in an economically deprived community, fortunately for me, motivated me to do better. Having parents that encouraged me to do the best was probably a hugh factor in my life. I have always tried to instil that kind of motivation in my students but parents need to meet teachers at least half way with this struggle. Working in mostly econmically deprived communities has shown me that not much has changed since I was in school unfortunately. How can we make changes that will effect these economically deprived communities in a positive way?


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