Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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The right to fail

Nathan ZoschkeWhen I was a child, my parents instilled in me the values of hard work and discipline.

I’ve lost track of how many times my mother marched into our living room to turn off the TV and tell my siblings and me to “get to work” and “do something productive.”

Begrudgingly, I did my chores and homework, but over time, grew to appreciate her prodding.

“You aren’t going to get anywhere in life being lazy,” was one of her favorite parenting maxims, and it’s one I believe whole heartedly.

Last year, I was incredulous when my high school government teacher, on the first day of class, told us hard work wasn’t necessary to pass.

“You’re going to have to try really hard not to get an ‘A’ in here,” he said. “It’s second semester and everyone’s getting tired of school, and I want you all to graduate. Don’t stress yourselves out.”

Predictably, the class was a joke.

Students weren’t punished for tardiness or poor attendance, and our coursework consisted of a Bill of Rights coloring book, open-note tests and watching movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

And predictably, the knowledge students gained of American government from Mr. Collins’ class was zilch.

Sadly, other educators are using the same method of manipulating student outcomes through diluted, dumbed-down “fail-proof” teaching.

But others, like West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va., are going the extra step and abolishing failing grades altogether.

Instead, students at West Potomac will receive an incomplete grade and be allowed to make up their unsatisfactory work at a later time.

“The change in educational philosophy is intended to encourage students to continue working toward mastery of material rather than accepting a failing grade and moving on,” The Washington Post reports of the school’s decision.

While such thinking is appealing, it’s not true.

People are influenced by incentives (rewards) and disincentives (punishments), of which failure is arguably the most impactful.

Logically, the best way to motivate someone is to combine a reward for doing something and a punishment for not doing it.

In education, the grading scale fulfills this dual-incentive purpose.

When the humiliating threat of failing a class is taken away, so is the disincentive for not studying and doing coursework.

Students are left with the reward of receiving a good grade for going above and beyond what is expected, and while this may be enough to motivate overachieving students, the option of receiving an “F” is necessary to compel less academically-inclined students to learn.

Similarly, businesses have traditionally been motivated by the incentive of making a profit and the disincentive of bankruptcy (failure).

But even that has changed thanks to government bailouts for companies deemed “too big to fail.”

It is understandable why failure is such a dirty word. No one wants to see a business fold or a student dropout.

High school dropouts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, made an average annual income of $17,299 in 2006, less than two-thirds the income of high school graduates and one-third that of college graduates.

When a large business like General Motors fails, it has a staggering ripple effect on the economy.

But failure occurs for valid reasons, and manipulating outcomes to eliminate the option of failure cheats the system.

Students who fail do so because their performance is unsatisfactory, because they haven’t mastered the course.

Dumbing down tests and teaching material to the point where no student can fail defeats the purpose of learning.

The motivation for putting in extra work to get an “A” disappears when all students are guaranteed the same outcome in a class regardless of effort.

The below-average students who received “A’s” in Mr. Collins’ government class did not learn any more than they did in the classes where they received “D’s” and “F’s.”

This isn’t unique to my high school government class; it happens everywhere else schools artificially manipulate students’ grades, be it eliminating “F’s,” teaching to state assessments or dumbing down course material.

Instead of pampering students with equal outcomes, schools should ensure students have equal resources available to succeed.

And if a student refuses to take advantage of those resources, they are entitled to fail.

Likewise, poorly managed businesses that sell inferior products have the same right to fail in a free market economy.

Taking away a disincentive minimizes the impact of an incentive.

When everyone is guaranteed a satisfactory outcome, the rewards of hard work, frugality, innovation and personal responsibility are taken away.

Those who would otherwise fail never learn from their mistakes.

nzoschke@unews.com

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