Failure in the Classroom

BlogHer Original Post

When students fail, who is usually at fault?

It depends on the failure and, of course, on context. What do we mean by failure? Not getting good grades? Not learning anything? The two don't necessarily go hand-in-hand.

Fred the Fish at Are We Doing Anything Today? considers why a third of her sophomores are failing:

What is happening to our children that they are failing themselves and I, as their teacher, am failing them, too. I have kids with 3 percent grades. Three percent! As my friend says, you have to really work to come to school every day and fail at that level. That means you never complete in-class assignments (forget homework) or are so indifferent to them that a completed assignment is unacceptable. Call home and talk with a frustrated parent who doesn't know how to get their kid to do more.

The comments to this post share anecdotes that are depressing and eye-opening, but there's also a sense that the teachers sharing their experiences in the comment thread really do care about the (apparently increasing) problem of student failure and are looking for solutions. A lot of the blame, however, falls where I believe it squarely belongs: on the students themselves.

Says Linda:

However, we are the professionals, and we now need to figure out a way to teach the old stuff in a new way. Blogging, for instance, has caught my students' eye. They are currently working on Health Blogs which are fun and meaningful to them. After exhausting every trick in my bottomless hat to engage the learner, and they still don't come to the party, they simply fail.

As a former gifted student myself, I found Betty's comment to be particularly interesting:

A few years ago I taught two sixth grade gifted classes and was shocked that about half of them felt it was okay not to turn in assignments. I received very little support from the parents. I tried to have some of the failing students removed from the class but was told that they had to stay in the program. I honestly think that these kids had been so pumped up about their giftedness when they were in elementary school that they thought all they needed to do was show up and shine.

So. . .what's the solution to the problem of students who are no-shows or who show up but don't do the work? We can play the blame game, shifting accountability from teacher to student to parent to governments and school districts. The finger-pointing has gone on long enough.

When I was a senior in high school--lo, those many years ago!--one teacher said the superintendent had made it very clear that teachers were to blame for student failure. This teacher then opened up her gradebook to show me students who had missed 80 days of school that year. Who's at fault in this case? The student? The parents? The truancy officers for not following up? If the student had health problems, our crappy healthcare system in the U.S.?

In reality, it's a confluence of all these things and countless others. That's why it's so hard to reach students who are failing, let alone understand what causes such failure.

Nancy's contribution to this thread asks the big, scary question:

What if it's not the kids, the teachers or curriculum that is at fault. What if it's the whole system? What if schools are set up wrong for teens? What if high school is too long? What if the "old" system just isn't working for kids? What if the whole thing needs to be changed? Hmmm?

Hmmm indeed!

In your experience and observations, what are the biggest contributors across the board to student failure? Undiagnosed learning disabilities or developmental disorders? Absentee parents? Undertrained and underpaid teachers? District shenanigans? No Child Left Behind and a culture of high-stakes testing? The lazy-ass students themselves?

Do tell!

Leslie Madsen-Brooks, a recovering academic and an fledgling academic technologist, blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and Green West Magazine.

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