Permission to fail

[cross-posted at Moving at the Speed of Creativity]

got high schools on my mind

A high school teacher told me recently that her school allows students to try
harder courses than they normally might take. For example, students might sign
up for an Honors English class instead of a regular English class or an AP
Government class instead of a normal Government class. These are big issues in
secondary schools: who gets to take advanced / Honors / AP courses, who gets to
be exposed to rigorous course content, and who doesn’t. At first I thought that
this was great, that here’s a school that’s trying to open up learning
opportunities for students. But then my back brain registered how she talked
about the school policy. She said that the school gives students
permission to fail.” And that’s when it all fell
apart for me.

Permission to fail. What a horribly sad and
depressing term. Does a permission to fail policy
recognize that these kids might need a little extra support to be successful or
does it simply thrust them into the challenging learning environment and say,
“Good luck!”? Is a permission to fail policy premised
on student success or on a belief that “these kids really can’t do the work but
we’ll let them try because it looks and feels good” (to us, to parents, to the
public)? Perceptions and beliefs shape reality. Will a permission to
policy ever result in large numbers of successful

I left that school wishing it had a permission to

5 Responses to “Permission to fail”

  1. Or what if we did away with levels? Everyone does rigourous work. They do that on the football team, the band, etc… Almost every school shows pride in groups that are not exclusionary, yet they still hold on to levels in “academic” subjects. I don’t get it.

    It bothers me that kids are labelled in 2nd grade. Its very hard to shake that label.

  2. Do you know many students who need to be reminded that they have “permission to succeed”?

    I believe “permission to fail” means something very different to most students than it does to us. Students are encouraged towards measurable achievements – standardized tests, grades, etc. Every assignment they receive comes with preset criteria, a grading scale, a deadline, and direct comparison to other students’ work on the exact same assignment.

    In my job, and I imagine yours, too, things are a little different. There are deadlines, but often we get to set them ourselves or can give input in the process. Ideally, we can tell our bosses our “expert” opinion in our area of expertise and together develop goals that we both would like to see met and both believe are achievable. We also get “credit” for doing things that don’t end up with numerical values – we get to monitor trends in edutech, we get to network with others in our district and elsewhere, etc.

    In the real world, you’re allowed to choose a part of your job that you’d like to improve and try to take it to the next level. If it doesn’t work perfectly, you can still write down what you’ve learned for your boss (or successors to your position) and apply it to future projects, and that’s ok.

    I see “Permission to fail” as an attempt to bring some of those aspects of real world jobs into the student’s world. Hopefully, it gives students some opportunity to try something without quite as much stress.

  3. In my class, permission to fail means that when students are lazy or do not want to do an assignment, they can get “permission to fail”. That means they take a paper home and get their parents to sign it, with a phone number that I can call to confirm that they really give their student permission to fail that assignment. Then, at the end of the quarter, there is no rush to turn in assignments that were not done. This way, I don’t have to waste my time standing over students that have no desire to do what they need to pass.

  4. It’s interesting how different readers are taking away different meanings from that phrase.

    I know this isn’t exactly what you meant, but it reminded me of a photo on a post on Patrick Higgins blog, Chalkdust:

    I hope what the school intended was that students could try the AP course without fear if they had difficulty.

    Anyway, just wanted to connect you with the photo…

  5. When I went to high school in the 80s the practice was that AP and Honors classes were only available to students of merit. They were the whitest classes on my campus, but since most of us were white, you wouldn’t know this was a “problem” unless you knew more. I had been misplaced in my initial year at that school (ninth grade) into the “Basic” level classes (I told them I did poorly in grammar at Junior High—I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save myself). That was the “darkest” part of the school, so I was aware of this “pattern”.

    After I left, I kept in touch with one of my English teachers (great lady), and she was in a unique position. Her husband was an advisor to the school board. They were now trying an experiment to have “open enrollment” for the AP classes. Many teachers moaned and groaned about the deteriorating level of their classes, but…over time they had a much higher raw number of students taking and passing the AP test. The percentages were down, but the overall pool had expanded greatly.

    If you call it permission to fail, you may be setting kids up for failure. I like permission to succeed, but the staff may freak at the unreasonable expectation of having the same pass rates on the test. I prefer giving kids a chance, but we quibble because the goal we all have, which is laudable, is to have more equity in these courses.

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