Focus on Education in Regina: Should kids be allowed to fail?

June 12, 2012 - 7:58am Updated: June 12, 2012 - 3:21pm
File photo of a Saskatchewan classroom. Karin Yeske/News Talk Radio
File photo of a Saskatchewan classroom. Karin Yeske/News Talk Radio

Final report cards are coming out soon but parents are learning those grades are definitely not as simple as they once were.

Should kids be allowed to fail?

The issue is popping up in a national debate about consequences and grades after a teacher in Edmonton was recently suspended for handing out zeros.

How does it work in Regina?

The short answer is that there is no written rule against failing or handing out zeros to high school students in both Public and Catholic schools in Regina.  However, some teachers who don't want to be named have said the pressure to pass is implied.

For today’s teachers, to fail or not to fail does not have a simple yes or no answer. It’s more like an essay question.

Teachers and parents alike are also discovering that the direction of all education is moving away from giving failing grades or holding students back.

Regina Public Schools: failing doesn't work

Mike Walter is the deputy director of instruction and school services for RPS and he says there are very good reasons behind this philosophy.

In fact, he says failing students’ works against them in the long run and is actually the number one predictor of dropping out.

Before they get to high school, failing students goes against ‘best practices’ in education, it’s possible but requires a lengthy consultation process and is considered to be a last ditch resort.

So how often does that actually happen?

“We’ve never actually collected the data say from grades one to eight to determine how many students per year are actually retained,” he said.

“We collect a lot of data, that’s the piece we do not collect because it really doesn’t inform our work. What’s more important is how the students themselves are actually achieving so that’s what we focus on.”

Some parents and teachers wonder what kids learn about consequences when they know they can’t fail.

Walter doesn’t believe consequences of failing are actually effective.

"That whole concept of consequences and here's what will happen to you if you don't do that, research shows that really is not a way to get students to learn," he says.

Teachers like the one in Edmonton argued against perceived no- zero or no fail policies because it leaves them no options for consequences.

Mike Walter RPS: 'Grades as consequences not a way to get kids to learn'

Walter says that just becomes a challenge for teachers in motivation because there could be many reasons why kids aren't engaged in learning.

“Once in a while they may throw out the example of 'well you can’t fail me anyways' but there are multiple reasons why children are not engaged in learning,” he commented.

“Quite often we find that when they’re not engaged it’s the fact that there are things happening outside the school that are really impacting on the child.”

Instead of giving failing grades, Walter says teachers need to come at it from a different angle and try to determine the reasons why they won't do it.

Even if the reason they're not doing the work is because the material is not appropriate for their level, Walter says that doesn't mean the kid should be held back because it's best practice to move them on with their age group rather than run the risk of negative social factors motivating them to give up or drop out.

Regina Catholic Schools: 'reasons student's don't engage are specific'

Janet Chabott is one of the Assistant Superintendents in Education Services for Regina Catholic Schools and she agrees with this philosophy when it comes to students who don’t do their work.

“There (are) definite reasons and they’re very specific to family situations, to learning abilities,” she said, referring to reasons kids fail.

“All of those things are going to be considered and we’ll work very hard to try to identify why the student is failing to engage.”

Before considering the option of holding students back or letting them fail a class, Chabott explained that Catholic Schools use a tiered system of support for students to help get them through the material.

First they try strategies to adapt work to meet the specific needs of the student in the classroom and then they go to resource teachers for help.

Regina Catholic Schools: 'possible to fail but it doesn't happen very often because of supports'

Cheryl Exner who is also an assistant superintendent with the Catholic school division, explained that these supports lead to lower rates of failing.

 “It’s definitely possible (to fail) but it doesn’t happen very often because  of those interventions that are in place,” she said.

Exner added the point that when they do decide to hold a student back, it’s a very complex process involving meetings between school staff, parents and people who work for the division.

Ministry of Education: assessment will be the same for all students

Now the Saskatchewan government is insisting that the assessment process to show what they do or don't know is the same at every school. The Ministry of Education has introduced this province-wide initiative in order to improve over-all academic achievement in schools.

This means that they are tested at the beginning of the school year and at the end. That info is passed on to the teacher in the next grade even if they aren't meeting all the outcomes.

Walter used an example of pre-assessing a student and realizing he or she is in grade 4 but their reading comprehension is only at a grade one level or below.

"All we can do is work from where they're at and bring them along as much as we can based upon the information we get from the pre-assessment and what we consider be the best instructional practices to meet the needs of that student," says Walter.

"It's not simplistic, it's complex, the best practice is not to retain kids because of negative social issues," Mike Walter explained.

Some teachers and education professionals who aren’t comfortable using their names have pointed out that it’s not the kids who need help that are the issue, it’s the ones who aren’t motivated to do their work. 

Walter: 'high schools should have better supports for students'

So what happens in high school when they don't always have all the skills to do all the work or keep up but they can fail an assignment or a class?

Walter says RPS is looking at changing the high school system to provide better supports.

Restructuring high school so failing students could make up more work rather than repeating whole class
'Walter went on to say that we need to restructure high school so when students aren't successful in completing a class they won't have to re-take it entirely.

So rather than making students re-take a class when they haven't met all the outcomes they will simply be told to make up for what they haven't learned yet with the help of resource or ‘transitional’ teachers.

"You know these 7 outcomes but we need you to learn these other 8 outcomes to move on but we won't make you take the course over again," he said.

Provincial Auditor's Report: Graduation rates dropping - top priority to improve for government

The latest report from the provincial auditor showing that graduation rates are hovering around the 72 per cent mark and they even dropped by three per cent between 2005 and 2009. The government has said improving these graduation rates is a top priority. However the auditor’s report criticized this goal as to general, saying the Ministry of Education has failed to set out specific goals and explain to school divisions how they want to meet them.

If the goal is to graduate more students, administrators say that rather than being caught up in making students repeat classes when they don’t finish by June, the system should be more flexible.  They say it shouldn’t be about grades and failing, instead education should be focussed on teaching kids different ways to learn and getting them through the classes they need to graduate.