education, Rants, Retention, Teacher

The No Fail Philosophy Has Many Shades of Grey

One of the important conversations that took place during the recent Nova Scotia teachers contract negotiations dealt with the existence (or non-existence) of the province’s no-fail policy.

The Minister argued that no such policy existed; however, teachers and administrators knew that this unwritten rule was firmly enforced and argued that it made it difficult for them to support families and kids.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before the great people on the interwebs weighed in and started sharing their opinions on the issue.

They said that “lazy” kids should be held back. As if a lack of ability was something that needed to be punished, so that these students would “try harder”. They also argued that a year being held back would result in all of these kids “catching up” and going on to future academic success.

fair isn't always equalNow, this argument does ring true in some cases. There are some students who are working the system. (Just like there are some people who slack off at work and some people who cheat the welfare system.) The kid who skips all of grade 10 so that he can play video games and deal drugs, probably shouldn’t get a free pass to grade 11. (He may need mental health and addiction support, but that’s another story for another time.)

But there are many, many more students, who try their best every day and still come up short. Perhaps the system isn’t built for them; perhaps their brain works a little bit differently.

That’s when the training and expertise that teachers have needs to come in to play.  That’s when we need to have those conversations with parents and students and figure out what’s best for that specific student. And that’s when the relationship between the teacher, the student and the family is so important.

Because if we trust that teachers want what’s best for their students and we trust that parents want what’s best for their children, then we need to trust their judgement.

And there’s the rub, right there. Trust.

Do you trust that teachers want what’s best for kids? Does our society? Does the government? If we don’t trust teachers to do what’s right, then how can we, in good conscience, send children to school every day?

In some cases, retention is right and good for the student. I’ve seen it work in the lower grades. Some of these little munchkins just aren’t ready for school at age 4 or 5. But a positive retention story after those early years is pretty rare, in my never to be humble opinion. There is lots of research that shows that retention does not result in student improvement and actually results in higher drop out rates as they go into high school.

In almost every case, the kids I’ve worked with want to do well. They just can’t. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid or lazy. It means the system isn’t working for them. A learning disability or cognitive delay means that no matter how many years you retain them, they will not “catch up” with their peers in their particular area of weakness. Knowing that, do you really want a 16-year-old sitting, seething in a grade 3 classroom? No? Neither do I. Neither do they.

Before we even consider retention, we need to look at helping our students move from where they’re at, to where they could be. That means beefing up our extra supports through adaptations and individualized plans. It means putting more money into specialists, like psychologists and speech therapists and guidance counselors, and investing money into our learning centres and resource teachers. We need to hold our students responsible for individual assignments and classroom behaviour every day, instead of letting them slide by and then slamming them at the end of the term with the fact that they have failed.

Instead of thinking that it’s the kids who are broken, perhaps we need to look at the underfunded, overcrowded cookie-cutter school system we have put them in.

Retention is not a black or white issue. We need to consider all of the different shades of grey before we rush into a decision that could have dire future effects.  Every child is an individual and needs to be treated as such.

We need all kinds of thinkers and doers in our society, not just the kids who are all academic strengths and no challenges. What a dreary world it would be if we were all the same.


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