Defining Failure: Cracking Open Success
Every time I see a headline that proclaims the immanent disruption and grand reshaping of the K12 classroom experience, I have a glimmer of hope in my heart. But as much as I share that belief, that we’re holding all the tools necessary to remake something personally meaningful and transformative out of the broad notion of school, I don’t find much to be excited about in most of the proposed solutions. Notably, I think that we’re stuck in a loop, designing systems that will increase some marker of success, without considering if that statistic is itself just a side-effect of another experience. I think we’re confused as to what success means for K12, and that both leads to a poor choice of goals and metrics, and a culture that makes os failure-adverse in all the wrong places.
Keeping up with my disclaimers, I’m going to try to pick this apart using an version of the high school I attended, rather than drawing any experience or anecdotes from schools I’ve taught in. I attended a moderately sized wealthy suburban high school that was largely class-stratified, using various combinations Gifted/Honors/AP tracking to build non-overlapping social strata. As it existed in 199X, it was, by most public measures, a successful school. For this discussion, I’m going to refine it further into something closer to the school I experienced. That imaginary school had a graduation and 4 year college attendance rate near 100%. Although the socio-economic signifiers for this population are completely screwed and non-representative, it’s a useful thought exercise to think about what school behaviors contributed to this success.
My only answer, the answer that has shaped my approach to teaching for the last decade, is that a majority adults in the community were open and welcoming to students. Every teacher would reach out to a student that they felt an affinity for, or one who they saw in need, or one to showed promise and interest in their discipline. While there’s no way that every teacher can form a meaningful positive connection with every one of their students, but the dream of this approach is that the combined outreach of all the adults can somehow reach every student.
The reality is that the boundaries of this imaginary school precisely map where that dream fails. “Successful” students had enough sustaining, positive relationships with school-adults to outweigh or outnumber the interest-sapping, humiliating, crushingly negative experiences of adolescence, negative experiences that came from inside and outside school. “Unsuccessful” students didn’t have enough, and got pulled under or pushed away by the negative forces.
The “successful” student population isn’t homogenous, all living lives of quiet privilege and moving towards graduation on autopilot. Many students needed those relationships, needed the support from a teacher or coach, from the communities formed in a photo labs and practice rooms, to bind the school experience to their developing “real” selves.
OK, that got a bit flowery. Let me bring it back to failure.
I really do believe that enduring communities and relationships between diverse groups of students and adults is the strongest argument for the continuation of school in any form my parents would recognize. I think even in our successful schools, these relationships are the primary driver of baseline success, poorly quantified in attendance, graduation, and college attendance rates. These relationships are also at the heart of most stories of personal or institutional excellence.
From this perspective, I see a truth that, strangely, encourages me about school reform. Most of what students and teachers are engaged in throughout the day does nothing to encourage these relationships, and is often actively detrimental to them. It’s a testament to teachers’ commitment to students that these relationships form in spite of the bureaucratic hamster wheel of the academic calendar. We can experiment with new structures that actively encourage these relationships, look for new ways to give students more time and more avenues to connect with a school community ready to support them.
This is where I’m looking for new ways to “fail cheaply.” Ways to put committed teachers into contact with students in new areas and build relationships that sustain kids for a lifetime.