Why our Intolerance of Failure Causes more Damage than the Failure Itself.

This week, the news was full of rocket explosions. First NASA’s epic catastrophe, the Antares, exploded 6 seconds after takeoff. Then Virgin Galatic’s colossal failure, SpaceShip Two, blew up during a test flight.

As I saw pictures of explosions online and on TV, and as I heard news anchors questioning NASA and Virgin Galactic’s ability to launch a successful space program, I couldn’t help but think about 3rd graders.

This year 3rd graders around the country will take an exam with a failure rate of over 60% (in some states the failure rate is almost 75%). Whether it’s the PARCC, SAGE, AIR or Smarter Balanced tests, students are going to fail and fail big. And if NASA can’t catch a break regarding the botched launch this week, how will our third graders be treated?

However, those yelling about NASA and Virgin Galatic’s disasters have not looked at all of the accomplishments these two companies have seen over the years. Here are just a few:


  • 1969 – First human to walk on the moon
  • 1981 – Space Shuttle Launch
  • 1993 – International Space Station
  • 2014 – Curiosity Rover landed on Mars

Virgin Galactic (SpaceShip Two):

  • Dec 2009 – SpaceShip Two, the first commercial spacecraft, is unveiled.
  • Oct 2010 – First drop test and solo flight
  • April 2013 – First rocket-powered, supersonic flight

Bottom line, this country does not tolerate failure well.

To top it off, people like Duncan, Bush and Gates have defined success for all children and have imposed a straight line toward proficiency everyone must follow. They call this “rigor”. However, educators know there are no linear paths to learning. Real learning is about struggle and lots and lots of failure.

It reminds me of a quote by Michael Jordan when he says, “I’ve missed 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.”

However, education policy makers do not see the necessity of failure and the current obsession with high-stakes assessments and “achievement data” has created a fear of setbacks. And students are terrified to make mistakes especially in reading.

Jose is in 3rd grade and reading is not his strongest attribute. He can read, but has trouble with reading comprehension questions. In fact, Jose used to love to pick books from the class book basket, sit crossed legged on the floor and flip through the pages.

However, lately Jose associates reading with anxiety and failure because there is a bulletin board outside his classroom in the hallway. On it is a giant line graph, or a data wall as his principal calls it. Students’ reading progress is displayed for all the school to see on the data wall. On the top of the bulletin board it says Reach for the stars!

Jose’s line is one of the lowest on the data wall and although the school staff uses student id numbers rather than names, he and all of his classmates know exactly whose line belongs to whom.

Jose walks past the data wall three and four times a day – back and forth from the bathroom, to and from lunch, and before and after school. His failure to read as fast as everyone else is in his face and a constant reminder he will most likely fail the test in the spring.

What is not represented on the wall are many of the things that make Jose pretty amazing: he’s bilingual and speaks Spanish in his home; even though he is in 3rd grade he translates during doctor’s appointments, banking transactions and other day-to-day situations for his mother; and he takes care of his little brothers and sisters while his parents are at work on the weekends. Not illustrated on his line are the many circumstances Jose has had to overcome by being a bicultural student, having one foot in American culture and another in his native Mexican culture.

Sure enough, Jose fails to meet standard proficiency on the spring exam and is retained in 3rd grade while his friends go on to 4th. The next year he is embarrassed to play on the playground.

I am certain NASA does not have a data wall in the hallway to remind rocket scientists of all their failures. For our kids to benefit from failure like Michael Jordan does, we have to create an environment that embraces nose-dives, crashes and flops. We have to teach students to fail better.

I suspect based on the past that NASA and Virgin Galactic will regroup and become more successful than ever because of these devastating catastrophes. Unfortunately, Jose will carry the burden of his low-test scores for years to come as his electives are replaced with remedial reading and test prep.

Jose’s situation is a result of idiotic education policy and it would behoove those who make education policy to take a page from George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic when he says:

“Space is hard and today was a tough day. We are going to be supporting the investigation as we figure out what happened today. We’re going to get through it. The future rests in many ways on hard days like this…”

And from Richard Branson founder of Virgin:

“I truly believe that humanity’s greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain.”

There is no better metaphor for our current education policy than a rocket exploding over the Mojave Desert. Our educational leaders have crashed and burned, but not all is lost if we learn from it.  We must decide the pain our children bear as a result of bad education policy is unnecessary and that standardization has been an epic fail for all of us. When will we begin to not only tolerate failure but embrace our own failure and use it to create engaging learning experiences for all students?


One Response

  1. Jim Oase

    Mistakes or Failures?

    Mistakes are temporary because we analyze, adjust and grow on. Failures are permanent because when we make a mistake we then become satisfied with our opinions and content with our knowledge insuring perpetual ignorance.

    Compulsory education when judged by all results achieved is a mistake. Keeping compulsory education would be an example of a failure.

    “A huge responsibility has fallen to us.  The United States is the most powerful and longest surviving government in world history. As veterans, willing to die for our country, we’re having a discussion about why the United States has made these accomplishments and not some other countries? Why in a mere hundred years have we lost our stories, that key knowledge we learned and needed to grow from a few shelters in the wilderness into the United States of America?  How do we expect our children to keep freedom going if we don’t tell them about the keys, the knowledge we learned as we grew?” ~ My email to Carl, a buddy from Nam

    What is America’s key? Unalienable rights. Why did America get its roots in unalienable rights, Nature’s Law? Where did the notion of being created as equals come from? The future United States came slowly into view in the 1500s with the printing of two different Bibles in English. Suddenly the public knew there was a difference between the State controlled message presented by the Church of England and the message in the Bible. Freedom of education revealed a creditability issue with the Monarchy’s centrally controlled education. The issue is where do human rights come from?

    Do your rights originate with our Creator as Natural unalienable rights or with the State as Legal rights? If an individual’s rights are Natural than they are unalienable: not contingent upon laws, customs or beliefs of a particular culture or government. If an individual’s rights are Legal than those rights are decided by the whim of the political or legal system in power at the time.

    Rights enjoyed by one group at the expense of another group are Legal Rights. “We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, ….” ~ United States Supreme Court 1857 in the Dred Scott decision against “they”, black Americans. The court voted along political party lines 7 to 2, democrats for, republicans against.

    Did the United States make a mistake or create a failure?


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