At this time of the school year many secondary schools, at least those with a diverse mix of students from various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, are concerned with the number of course failures and disengaged students. How many course failures are too many? The answer will vary from school to school, but the reality is that failing a core academic course is one of the best predictors of a student dropping out of school.
Like most challenges facing schools today, there is no simple answer or one single solution. Because schools are complex social systems, the solutions to problems are usually multi-dimensional and involve both short- and long-term approaches. This is the first in a multi-part series designed to help begin the conversation among teachers and school leaders.
Students don’t grow physically at the same rate. Nor do students grow socially or emotionally at the same rate. However, students must all learn at the same rate. How do I know? In many schools across the country all students are afforded the same amount of time to complete their courses.
And how is that working out? The answer is not well by today’s standards. I often hear from teachers and school leaders about high failure rates in core courses. They are puzzled and mystified about what to do. I recently received this concern from a colleague: “We have many students who are failing more than one course at the semester; some are failing as many as two and three.”
When I ask teachers and school leaders if students all learn at the same rate, they always say, “No! Students learn at different rates.” Then I ask, “If they learn at different rates, why do we give them all the same amount of time to complete their courses?” Then I get this far away look as though a thousand light bulbs just went off in their faces.
The bottom line is that students learn at different rates and they learn different subjects at different rates. Some students learn math quickly, yet struggle with history. Other students remember everything they learn in biology, but can’t remember how to do the same math problem that they solved perfectly two hours earlier.
Some students simply need more time to learn and some teachers need more time to teach some students. When students don’t have sufficient time, they begin to fall behind. Once they fall behind, it is extremely difficult and expensive, in terms of time, effort, and money, to catch them up. We spend far too much effort and valuable resources on remediation and credit recovery and place too little emphasis on preventing students from falling behind in the first place.
Schools that hold time constant will ensure that a significant number of students never reach mastery in any particular subject. Running all students down the same conveyor belt at the same rate guarantees that many will fail.
Failure was fine in the industrial age in which schools were tasked with sorting students—some go to college, others to trade schools, most to the factories or mines. In those days, most jobs did not require postsecondary education or training. An individual could succeed through hard work. Success in today’s post-information, knowledge-based economy requires hard work accompanied by knowledge, training, and high level reading, writing, and math skills.
The problem for schools is that varying learning time is complicated. It requires a lot of thought and planning. Allowing students to demonstrate mastery in differing lengths of time requires that we differentiate our approach with each student and that we develop an individual plan for each and every student. That takes a lot of work. My question is how much work does it require to remediate failing students? How successful are remediation efforts? What impact do repeating students have on t
eachers and students? Do repeaters improve?
In the schools that you and I attended, time was a constant and achievement became the variable. Some did (succeed), some didn’t, so what? In order to raise each and every student to mastery, time must become the variable and achievement the constant.
“Time is relevant. Outcomes are absolute.” – Anthony Robbins