Our sixth grade daughter, breathless with excitement, called our college senior, Brooke, to report that she had made a "1" on her flute solo at a recent competition. Later, I discussed the event with Brooke, reflecting back on her sixth grade experience playing the exact same flute. She asked what most of the competitors had received and I replied, "Oh, all 1's and 2's, as far as I know." Remembering hundreds of band and dance competitions throughout the years, Brooke responded that those were typical scores. She went on to say that someone would have to really stink up the joint to get a 3, and they basically would have to be not breathing to receive a 4.
And that's the way we've gone in today's America. We are afraid to let children fail.
Like both of my girls, I was also in band beginning in sixth grade. The story at competitions those days was just the opposite. It was a rare feat indeed for a band to receive all superior ratings throughout the marching, sightreading, and concert sections of the annual state band festival. Hundreds of 2's and 3's were handed out; fewer 4's, but they were by no means uncommon. The judges reserved 1's – literally translated into "superior" – for those groups that were outstanding. Scores weren't handed out just to spare kids' feelings. If you got a medal from one of these competitions, you wore it proudly because it really meant something.
The same thing applies to youth sports. Virtually every city league in the country rolls the cost of a season-ending trophy in with the registration fee so that every child receives one. The kids realize this. The only one I see any of them getting excited over is the MVP trophy, because they can see that someone chose their performance as best. I have one actual "trophy" to my name, and I really, truly won it. There was no better feeling in the world!
I am a member of a committee at my high school that meets to help students who seem to need a little extra something. One new transfer was struggling mightily. We looked at her grades from her previous school and found that she had passed every single course for the last three years with a minimum D, or 60%. I wondered what the mathematical odds were of making exactly the minimum passing grade in every single course. We looked up her former school on the Internet and learned that they subscribed to a philosophy which, in general, meant that students enrolled there were not allowed to fail. Clearly, however, that philosophy did not imply that students had to master the material to pass. Instead, the 60's were just doled out to everyone who had a lesser score. Perhaps that was not the intention of this program, but that was plainly the outcome in this poor child's case. And, because she had never been allowed to fail, she was now failing so badly that success would never be possible. Many of her former schoolmates will learn the same lesson, I fear, but it will simply be at a later stage in life - perhaps at their first job.
There are many different motivators in life. Intrinsic motivation, at its most positive, occurs when one desires to do well and focuses on each task at hand to learn it, understand it, master it. Sometimes, however, individuals are motivated by fear of failure. If we take away that possibility, then we take away a potential motivator that we need – not to mention the fact that we take the shine off the apple for those who really excel. What about the student who works diligently, struggles with certain coursework, and is ultimately rewarded with, say, a 62? If they look at others around them who simply occupied a seat in the classroom from time to time and put forth little or no effort whatsoever… well, you get my drift.
I think this frightening trend has actually come from these days of what I refer to as political correctness on steroids. We can't say the truth about anything, and the "failure is not an option" plan is an offshoot of this. We can't tell a parent that their child is anything less than superior. How, though, can everyone be superior unless we change the definition of the word? The truth is that the old "bell curve" everyone knows about from school days was not put in place through some weird science. We humans fall into the bell curve quite naturally – a few at the top, a few at the bottom, and the vast majority filling in the huge, middle, average population. I am not saying that we should not encourage "average" children to shoot for the stars. I am saying that we should let all of our children know that there is indeed a cellar – and it doesn't occur at 60%.
Knowing that an "F" or a "4" is a real possibility makes a "B" or a "2" much sweeter, and it helps prepare our children for the workforce in substantially more realistic terms.