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It's simple: No failure, no learning

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The zeitgeist of the Manitoba education system is obvious to anyone with an interest in schools: Elementary pupils are not failed — they are "socially promoted" with their peers — even if they do not understand most of material covered in their grade.

There is no provincial policy on no-fail because there is widespread official agreement that failing a kid is bad. You don’t need the hymnal when everyone sings the same song and has memorized the lyrics.

In the good-ol’ days when pupils walked barefoot five miles for spelling bees, when marks were posted on the blackboard, no one’s feelings were spared. Kids earned their marks and moved on, or not.

School, then, was also a demoralizing and humiliating experience for those in bottom academic percentiles. Everyone knew who they were. "Slow learners" went to the "special class." And many who didn’t meet the standards weeded themselves out early in high school, collateral damage in the days when there was limited research on the intricacies of a brain. A rigid system served natural learners well.

Society has changed in the last half-century almost as much as the classroom, where the three Rs have ceded space to social and political agendas. There is a rigidity still, but it rejects rote learning and favours a mutating curricular regimen. A teacher or principal who considers failing a child is a heretic and the rare parent who suggests it may be the key to Johnny’s success is likely to face opposition.

No child should be held back because he is struggling in a subject, even a core subject. He should get the necessary help to master arithmetic or language arts. But a child should not be shuffled along with the herd if many or most of the fundamentals are missing. That simply makes a teacher’s problem go away.

An education minister or superintendent is ill-suited to decide a school’s policy on fail/no-fail. The school and parent should decide how best to serve a child’s interests.

A survey by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society of 800 Manitobans indicated most are overwhelmingly opposed to a no-fail policy, suggesting policy-makers are out of step with parents. This is unsurprising — many parents are unlikely to have a strong acquaintance with the growing weight of research (good and bad) into successful learning. Parents have some idea, though, of what goes into raising resilient, competent and productive citizens. Self-esteem is basic to that.

The disconnect between administrators and parents may flow from how the no-fail policy is a symptom of a broader social-engineering trend in education. Indeed, the institutionalized agenda to protect self-esteem has become in some quarters a massive deception that only the officious refuse to recognize. The unassailable doctrine that everyone’s a winner and everyone is the same is anathema to critical thinking. Ask any eight-year-old with a closet full of trophies for showing up.

The fact that a late assignment is not penalized does not reward knowledge, it erodes learning and respect for the basic necessity of rules. It invites the wily to opt out.

That grammar only counts on assignments when a teacher says it does encourages sloppy work. If students can correct their tests to gain marks (or if they get a redo), study habits suffer. Such practices may explain why half the class is failing math even though a teacher is still reviewing last year’s material four months into the year.

Children who are not allowed to fail or to see mistakes can cost them will eventually have a hard landing when work-for-pay involves deadlines, standards and regular, swift assessment.

The idea that school teaches reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic is long gone. Making it easy, however, for the unmotivated to succeed is as bad as failing a child because a standard is not just too high, but unjustly short-sighted. It lets the entire education system off easy.

In a world where there is no failure, there is no learning.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

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