Compulsory Failure in Modern Schools
by Terry Halwes


Many organizations use competition as a way of getting people to work harder or more carefully, quickly, creatively, or whatever. Competition is generally believed to improve performance by rewarding good work and punishing poor work, while adding a sense of excitement to the whole situation. However, competition often actually degrades performance, overall: It replaces the intrinsic value and detailed feedback of the activity itself with the evaluative judgment of authority figures, and it undermines cooperation. (For more details of this general criticism of competition as an organizational tool, see my page on Psychological Principles.)

The general problems with competition are made worse in our schools by several factors. Our schools are organized to provide education efficiently for the average student. Students who learn more slowly than average are considered to have failed -- failed an exam, failed a class, failed a grade. These failures are attributed to the student, who is urged to accept responsibility for them and try harder next time.

Blaming students for failures to meet standards set by the schooling system and its employees is contrary to logic. In principle, any phenomenon has many causes -- elements of the situation that would change the phenomenon if they were different. In this case, factors influencing the success of any student's efforts in school include: the quality of the materials and their presentation; the quality of teaching and of the general school environment; the quality of the student's home environment, diet, health and background; the appropriateness of the work assigned, given the student's current level of mastery of the subject; and the appropriateness of the time allowed for the work given the students optimal rate of learning. 

Students have little influence over most of these factors; teachers have a little more influence; but in general, failures of learning in our school are created by the system of schooling -- the generally accepted goals and procedures that everyone involved is expected to conform to.

What we gain by using this system is a certain level of efficiency in the schooling process (though this efficiency is somewhat reduced by the need to deal with the failures), at the cost of immense quantities of money (lost income and taxes, expenses for welfare and imprisonment, and losses due to theft and vandalism, for example) and immeasurable amounts of human suffering and alienation.

School systems know that a certain percentage of their students will fail. After a relatively short time, they know who those failing students will be -- they will be the ones who failed before. Since the system forces everyone to participate in this learning contest, those who have failed will have many opportunities to fail again, and again. We are teaching these people that they are not who they should be. How many of them have the personal integrity to reject this arrogant slander, which our schooling system puts into the mouths of so many figures of authority? Of those who do have that much strength of character, how many will not simply give up on the schools; how many will also have the tolerance to continue trying to work with a system that has treated them so shabbily, and which continues to do so year after year?

The system seems to be based on a belief that the students' effort is a major factor in their success, and that failing will motivate them to try harder. However, if we look closely at who is failing, we see that most of them are people who suffered from the effects of fetal or childhood malnutrition, from fetal alcohol syndrome, from severe emotional disturbances, and from other afflictions. The victims of these injures  can't heal themselves by simply trying harder in school, and their difficult lives are made even worse by persistent experiences of failure.

Treating people who happen to be slower than average in academic learning environments like they should be learning more quickly is like punishing a child who must use crutches to walk for arriving late to a class held on the fourth floor of a school with no elevators. But what we do in our schools is really worse than that. 

We know, our teachers know, which students are going to fail at the learning contest. Yet we require that they participate in it, over and over, year after year. This is not a voluntary game, and the stakes are high. Win, and you can be a  productive citizen, have a good job, wealth, respect and all the good things our society offers its cooperative citizens. Loose, and, well -- you loose.

If this practice worked, it might be viewed as a necessary cruelty. Since it does not work at all, it is unconscionable -- it is obscene.

Several partial remedies are possible that don't require fundamental redesign of the schooling system, remedies ranging from changing the system of grade levels to include a wider range of ages in each class, to introducing methods for letting students proceed at their own pace. Students who have mastered a given level of a topic can be acknowledged without any need for stigmatizing those who have yet to do so.

Students and teachers, and school systems, need accurate information about how learning is progressing. What they don't need is to be compared to each other in an obligatory competitive contest.

Related Articles

Psychological Principles

Top of Page


Rigged scores on standardized tests are hardly the real problem: The real corruption is ranking people at all.

Recently a class full of students in a business ethics course at a highly respected graduate school of business management was suspended for cheating on an exam. The example may be humorous, but the underlying problem is not.

In keeping with widespread concern among educators and others, U.S. News and World Report put out a special report focused on abuses of standardized tests in American schools (April 27, 1992, pages 66-72). All over the country, at every level in the system, people are being ranked and rewarded or punished based on the results of those tests: Students are first ranked against other students, and then teachers, administrators, schools, entire school systems and even states are rated against each other according to the performance of their students. This entire system is inappropriate, from root to branch, and the problem is much deeper than the fact that every level of the process is susceptible to corrupt practices. 

It is true that many teachers are being instructed by their administrators, or deciding out of their own concern for the well being of their students, to "teach to the test," that is, to concentrate on material that is known to be on the test. (Some teachers help the students while they are actually taking the test, and some administrators and teachers change answers while scoring the tests.) It is also true that some administrators have taken the much easier route of simply making up the numbers that they report. It is true that some teachers, administrators and schools have gained substantial rewards, monetary and otherwise by these practices. It is also true that the companies that sell the tests are so lax in their security practices that no knowledgeable person should ever consider these scores to be valid measures of  anything.

All the frantic efforts to improve the tests or their administration miss the point entirely: Using these tests for the purpose of ranking people was never at all appropriate in the first place. 

One state has provided us with a crystal clear view of the real problem by taking the practice to its logical extreme: The legislature decided to rank all the school systems in the state, and to put the lowest 10% of  them on a probation list. I assume that this was done with the best of intentions, but nevertheless, the result will be a disaster. Why? Because no school district can get off that probation list without improving in such a way as to put some other school district on that list. So no 
amount of genuine improvement in the quality of education in that state will ever change the fact that ten percent of the schools are "on probation." The stronger the sanctions are that are imposed against schools that fail to "come up to the state standards," the faster things will deteriorate.

Several facets of this problem inspire comment: 

First, if we were not all enmired in the corrupt practice of ranking people against each other, using testing to decide who are the winners and who the losers in a learning contest (supposedly necessary) we would not have this problem. The only legitimate educational function of testing is to give everyone involved in the system feedback on the current quality of their efforts. (Standardized tests are a poor tool for this function.)

No amount of refinement in testing practices, or in the psychological and statistical understanding of learning and its evaluation, or in the real quality of American education, will salvage a system that ranks people by standardized tests. In any ranking system, roughly half of the students tested will be below average-- that's what "average" means. The practice of "curving" grades aims toward giving as many "bad" grades as "good" grades, and mostly "mediocre" grades, requiring students to out-perform other students to succeed.

Using standardized tests simply extends the competition to the entire country. The fact that the test is standardized means that the students' performance is compared to the distribution of scores in a large group of students of the same age and/or grade level. This was intended to be more fair; but removing the comparison group to a great distance, statistically, makes it even easier to forget that every success comes at the expense of a failure.

Such competition is in no way necessary. For example, I once taught a course in statistics in which there were more 'A's than all other grades combined. How? By grading on an absolute standard: Anyone who had learned to solve 90% or more of the types of problems we covered earned an 'A,' solving 80% earned 'B,' and so on (These percentages were entirely arbitrary). Everyone knew what types of problems would be on the test, but no one knew in advance what the details would be, so the only way anyone could get credit for learning to solve a particular type of problem was to actually do so. Grading on an absolute standard can be done in any course, and grading on an absolute standard is only one of several ways of giving feedback on learning without producing a failure for every success.

W. Edwards Deming emphasized that "people learn in different ways, and at different speeds". A schooling process that ignores this fundamental fact of human nature will create a literal chamber of torture for many of the students. Statistics can't predict which students will be classified as disabled or as outright failures, but the statistical properties of a school's grading procedures determine entirely the proportion of students who will fail in any particular way. All of the resulting pain is entirely unnecessary. If protected from coercive teaching practices, the students all learn, in each area, at the rate that is appropriate for them at that time.

The fact that these test scores can be falsified at all is a reflection of the fact that they have no intrinsic meaning. If testing of an appropriate sort is used to guide learning and teaching and to improve the process, it makes no sense at all to imagine anyone changing the scores; if a test  reveals that I still don't understand how to perform a particular operation, that result means something very specific to me, to my learning coach, and to the team that plans the lessons. It would make no sense to change the result to indicate that I do know something that I do not, or to give my result to a student in another school. Why should I copy another student's answer, if nobody views learning as a contest? 

In the sort of learning contest that most of our schools use, automatically enrolling every student, even the winners loose. The student's intrinsic joy in learning cannot withstand years of being praised for meeting the teachers expectations, in a system where the teacher is always in charge of deciding what is to be learned and how  well it has been learned, where "excellence" means nothing more than learning faster than people who are always slower than you are. 

Top of Page



In his book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'S, Praise, and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn points out that rewards, like punishments, are methods of controlling people -- perhaps a morally objectionable goal in a democracy -- and that, at best, they produce only temporary compliance. Whether used in the workplace, in the classroom, or in the home, rewards fail for many reasons: They punish; they damage relationships; they ignore whatever might be the real reasons for a behavior; they discourage risk taking; and they undermine interest in the task at hand. The alternatives he proposes, which he calls the ``three C's,'' are content, choice, and collaboration.

In What to Look For in a Classroom: And Other Essays, Kohn "challenges us to reconsider some of our most basic assumptions about children and education." Why is cooperative learning so threatening? Why is detracking is so fiercely opposed? "Kohn argues for giving children more opportunity to participate in their own schooling, for transforming classrooms into caring communities, and for providing the kind of education that taps and nourishes children's curiosity." 

The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, by Semour Papert; Basic Books, 1994. Rather than using computers to teach the same old curriculum even more mechanically, some visionary teachers have used computers creatively to enrich learning. Computer based media can let children master areas of knowledge that are now inaccessibly difficult, and self directed study can support diverse learning styles and let students take charge of their own learning.


Developmental learning "eschews molding a mind as if it were a passive medium and instead tries to collaborate with the student's developmental patterns. If the student does not progress in the expected way, the developmental teacher tries to understand what happened, rather than branding the student as a failure." 

Semour Papert -- The Children's Machine, p. 40.

Quality in Learning: Romancing the Journey, by Todd Bergman, Quality Coordinator, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Sitka, Alaska.

Our Consensus beliefs:
* We believe that all people can learn.
* We believe that all people want to learn.
* We believe that learning needs to be a constant and time should be a variable.
* We believe each learner can grow in their knowledge and skills to understand more about their own learning styles and needs than most educational systems allow for.

Full article in Adobe Acrobat format (322k)

Alternative Assessment In Science

History of Education Links

Learn Haven

Net Quest Learning Links

Top of Page

Dharma Haven Home Page 
Tara's Webstore

Support Dharma Haven
While you Save on Books and Music 
Your Comments and Suggestions

Revised on August 9, 1999

Copyright © 1999 Dharma Haven 
Top of Page