Do Kids Need to Fail?

PWCS – Where Failure Is No Longer an Option?

It’s not easy being a parent of high school children these days.  High school is the launching pad to adulthood – to “the real world” if you will.  And knowing the real world is rather unforgiving, we parents work to instill the values and the ethics of personal responsibility and accountability in our children that are crucial for success in the adult world.  For the high school young adult this parental academic encouragement is almost universally the same, “Pay attention in class; study hard; do your best; learn the subject matter; and strive to get good grades.”  As parents we know that our children’s achievement in high school directly relates to the opportunities they’ll have after graduation.  Want to get into that college or university of your choice?  Want to be competitive for that career right out of high school?  If so, it’s the student’s record of achievement in high school that opens those doors of opportunity.  Student effort, grades and achievement count in the real world.

So what’s a parent to think when the senior executive administrator for PWCS high schools proposes that failure really isn’t going to happen here in PWCS? Failing” a PWCS a high school course really just means a student didn’t “complete” the course with the rest of the class.  That’s essentially what the PWCS Associate Superintendent of High Schools, Mickey Mulgrew, told the Washington Post on Sunday a few weeks ago.

The Post Article, “Taking the ‘F’ Off The Grade Books”, reports that one Fairfax County High School is embracing a “huge paradigm shift” where students who fail high school courses…well, never really fail.  Instead they’re just “Incomplete” in their learning.  That’s right, no more failing grades in West Potomac High!  Instead, students will be awarded (or gifted?) ”An ‘I’ for incomplete, indicating that students still owe their teachers essential work.  They will get Fs only if they fail to complete assignments and learn the content in the months to come.Sound absurd?  You bet.  Think it’s only a Fairfax County problem?  Think again.  Here’s what PWCS’ leading high school authority had to say in the Post about this new educational fad:

“Once they demonstrate mastery, you give them credit for what they know,” said Mickey Mulgrew, Prince William County’s associate superintendent for high schools. The growing belief, he said, is: “Who cares if you learned it on Monday or Tuesday, as long as you learned it?”

Who cares Mr. Mulgrew? – parents and employers for starters.  Try that tactic in the college or university of your choosing.  “Who cares if I pass the final exam by the end of the course?” – good luck getting your college degree with that approach. “Who cares when I get around to completing a project at work?” – good luck getting a paycheck with that scheme.  The truth is this new educrat fad is all about undermining values of responsibility and accountability in favor of rewarding failure.  It’s yet another “new low” in public education’s soft bigotry of low expectations, and cause for alarm when senior PWCS officials embrace the nonsense.

Already students have to work very, very hard to fail courses in PWCS needed to earn a Virginia high school diploma.  And failing a PWCS high school course due to lack of effort or lack of competency ought not to be celebrated as a positive “paradigm shift” in education.  Yet from the Post article, this appears to be where the northern Virginia public school systems are heading.  Earning an “F” in PWCS takes a lot of concerted student (non)‑effort these days as PWCS has already made it easier to retake tests and award fewer outright zeroes according to the Post.  So why not just take the last remaining stigma – the dreaded “F” – off the PWCS menu.  To those students looking for an excuse not to apply themselves, PWCS may be handing them one, gift-wrapped at that.  Fail a course?  Nope, just “incomplete” it and perhaps get around to “mastering it” some other time; say on a Tuesday or maybe even Wednesday…of one’s senior year.  And let’s be clear – the overwhelming majority of students who are failing (or “incompleting” in the new jargon) high school courses aren’t teetering on the edge of mastery – just needing an extra month, season, or perhaps year to get around to learning/mastering the subject matter – they are indeed failing.  And it’s the stigma of “failing” that PWCS appears to want to erase from the division’s high schools.

By embracing this new “educational fad” PWCS undermines all the hard work and dedication that parents and teachers put forth to raise and educate high school students to become motivated, responsible, and accountable adults.  It sends the wrong message to students and parents alike.  When senior PWCS officials openly champion low expectations it undermines the investment parents and citizens make in the public school system with our tax dollars.  Whether or not the PWCS Board is even aware of this new “paradigm shift” in Superintendent Walts’ strategic plan for our county schools is unknown.  At a minimum it gives citizens reason to be very concerned about the oversight of our school system and the direction PWCS is heading.

Mr. Mickey Mulgrew, Associate Superintendent for PWCS High Schools can be reached via e-mail at: or by phone:  703-791-7238.

The PWCS Board can be reached via e-mail at:,,,,,, or by phone:  703-791-8709/8705


6 Responses to “Do Kids Need to Fail?”

  1. ZeroSum Ruler Says:

    This reminds me of the 1980s when everyone got a trophy. Somewhere in my Dad’s house are three shiny gold plastic little league trophies, one for each year we didn’t win even one game. Back then, though, it had good intentions: the “self-esteem movement”. Now, it just seems like a way to get around kids failing arbitrary exams that you and I never had to take when we were kids yet we turned out fine. Do I think kids need to fail in order to succeed? Yes. Success doesn’t come easy in the real world, you have to fight for it. But do I think that there are deeper reasons behind removing the F in this school district? Yes. I think it is a way to bypass the exams upon exams upon exams that are burning out students out and making them feel like losers. If I had been given a high-stakes test every school year until 10th grade, my frustration and anxiety may have checked me out somewhere along the way.

    Then there’s the whole issue of giving the last state test (MCAS here in Massachusetts) in 10th grade. What message are we sending to kids? That you’re done after a 10th grade education? That’s the only message I see.

    • pwceducationreform Says:

      High stakes testing is a huge issue in education, and only likely to get worse if the President’s proposed ESEA is passed into law.

      Under NCLB, which was President Bush’s version of ESEA, states were required to develop standards and standards based assessments which would gauge how well students had learned the content necessary to progress to the next level. Developing standards and assessments wasn’t enough – schools also had to show progress, meaning that an increasing percentage of students had to pass the state assessments each year.

      The net effect of that well intentioned but poorly thought out and implemented program is that instruction is now geared towards passing the test, not gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to advance to the next level. Because there are so many standards, they cover such a breadth of topics, and each is considered to be equally important, the assessments generally hit each standard with a small number of questions and then move on, and emphasis on the major foundational knowledge and skills isn’t emphasized. Crummy curricula, like TERC Investigations, which fail to adequately address major foundational concepts and skills like basic arithmetic, are adopted and used in classrooms around the country because students can pass the test without knowledge of basic arithmetic. Then we end up with legions of kids who can’t “do math” and wonder how we ended up here.

      President Obama’s proposed ESEA will only make things worse, but that’s a topic for an upcoming article.

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  3. World Spinner Says:

    Do Kids Need to Fail? « PWC Education Reform Blog…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

  4. A World Class Education? Says:

    At the university level in New Zealand an “F” grade is more often than not “upgraded” to “CP” for “compassionate pass.” Perhaps PWCS could adopt this in our high schools. “CP” sounds like a reward or something and after all, we’re all about children’s self-esteem and district self-image over actual achievement.

  5. Citizen Tom Says:

    Sounds like another excuse to expand the bureaucratic mess. Doesn’t somebody has to track all these incompletes?

    The public school system is a “scientifically” contrived assembly line. To work in practice, all the students have to keep up. Smart and diligent students have no trouble with that. Teachers set the pace for the average student (the smart, lazy students and the diligent average students). The rest get D’s and F’s, and their “punishment” serves as a prod for everyone else. Because those with F’s did not learn enough to pass, their failure means they have to start over again.

    If instead of F’s, teachers give students incompletes, how will they track these incompletes? Who is being punished, the teacher or the incompleters? Who has to do more work, the teachers or the incompleters?

    Well, we cannot have already busy and overburdened teachers doing more work. So the bureaucracy must be expanded, right?

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