The First Step Is Failure

Joanne Jacobs, edu­ca­tor, blog­ger and author of Our School: The Inspir­ing Sto­ry of Two Teach­ers, One Big Idea and the Char­ter School That Beat the Odds, par­tic­i­pates today in our Author Speaks Series with an excel­lent arti­cle on how “Schools won’t improve until admin­is­tra­tors and teach­ers can admit the prob­lems, ana­lyze what’s going wrong and try new strate­gies. Stu­dents won’t improve if they think they’re “special” just the way they are.” Enjoy, and feel free to add your com­ment to engage in a stim­u­lat­ing conversation.Our School: Joanne Jacobs

The First Step Is Failure
By Joanne Jacobs

When self-esteem became an edu­ca­tion watch­word in 1986, I thought it was a harm­less fad. I was wrong: It wasn’t harm­less. Many teach­ers were per­suad­ed that stu­dents should be pumped up with praise, regard­less of their per­for­mance. Schools low­ered expec­ta­tions so stu­dents couldn’t fail. Every­one got an “I Am Special” stick­er. Till the stan­dards and account­abil­i­ty move­ment kicked in, stu­dents often were judged by how they felt about learn­ing not by whether they’d actu­al­ly learned something.

I remem­ber a children’s book about a bad­ger (or such­like) start­ing school who’s afraid to tell his teacher he can’t read. In the denoue­ment, the teacher assures the bad­ger that she “loves” him “just the way he is.” Sure­ly not. Teach­ers can’t love all their stu­dents in any mean­ing­ful way. And the whole enter­prise of school­ing is about chang­ing chil­dren from what they are, such as illit­er­ate, to some­thing bet­ter, such as lit­er­ate. er. It’s OK to start school not know­ing how to read. It’s not OK to stay that way.

What hap­pens to those “special” chil­dren if they don’t learn how to read, write and cal­cu­late flu­ent­ly in the ear­ly grades? Even­tu­al­ly, real­i­ty bites.

I spent years hang­ing around Down­town Col­lege Prep, a San Jose char­ter high school, to write a book, Our School: The Inspir­ing Sto­ry of Two Teach­ers, One Big Idea and the Char­ter School That Beat the Odds. DCP recruits stu­dents who earned Ds and Fs in mid­dle school and tries to pre­pare them for four-year col­leges. I call it the anti-self-esteem school.

Most Down­town Col­lege Prep stu­dents come from Mex­i­can immi­grant fam­i­lies, speak Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage, qual­i­fy for a free lunch, etc. They’ve got plen­ty of excus­es for fail­ure. Held to low stan­dards for years, most start ninth grade with fifth-grade read­ing and math skills and ter­ri­ble work habits.

DCP puts them in a mix of reme­di­al and col­lege-prep class­es and demands they do home­work every day and show respect for their teach­ers, class­mates and their own futures.

Hon­esty is the school pol­i­cy. No time is spent inflat­ing self-esteem. Instead, stu­dents are told that they’re way behind but have the abil­i­ty to improve if they work hard.

Stu­dents don’t crum­ble when they’re told that they’re behind. They’re not stu­pid. They already know that. What they don’t know is what to do about it. Their teach­ers tell them how to catch up, step by step. Stu­dents are praised for mak­ing progress, even if that means mov­ing from an F aver­age to an F+. But they’re remind­ed again and again that they need to pass with a C or bet­ter to qual­i­fy for a pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty. If they fail a class, they can try again in sum­mer school or repeat the grade.

If they need to spend two years in ninth grade, so be it. The school’s unof­fi­cial mot­to is: We’re not good now, but we can do better.

When Greg Lipp­man, the school’s co-founder and first prin­ci­pal, insist­ed stu­dents prac­tice pub­lic speak­ing, a teacher wor­ried they’d be embar­rassed. “I dis­agree that it’s more humil­i­at­ing to be told what you’re doing is crap­py than to have peo­ple tit­ter­ing in the audience,” Lipp­man replied. “Bombing out, and com­ing back from bomb­ing, is a big part of what we do here. It’s just like those PSAT scores. They were crap, garbage. OK, let’s go and get better.”

After awhile, it’s obvi­ous that stu­dents who do the work do improve.

Sel­ma, who I thought wouldn’t make it out of ninth grade, is now in col­lege study­ing to become a nurse. Anoth­er girl who’d gone through school as a straight D stu­dent came alive in 10th grade and made it to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at San­ta Cruz. Who knew Gina was smart? Gina will grad­u­ate in June with a psy­chol­o­gy degree and go on for a master’s in social work.

Loren­zo, who wore the “loaner” shirt every day because he couldn’t get it togeth­er to wash the uni­form shirt, turned out to be a tal­ent­ed artist. No kind­ly adult told him that his tal­ent made it unnec­es­sary to pass read­ing, writ­ing and math tests. It took him five years to pass col­lege-prep class­es, but he made it. Loren­zo is now an art major at Chico State.

Nation­wide, about half of stu­dents who start col­lege nev­er earn a degree; most drop out in their first year. The num­bers are worse for His­pan­ic and black students.

Most DCP grad­u­ates strug­gle aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly in col­lege, but they don’t quit: 80 per­cent are on track to earn a bachelor’s degree. Their ambi­tions are backed by basic skills, strong work habits and the resilience that comes from know­ing how to fail, try hard­er and improve.

The will­ing­ness to admit fail­ure isn’t just for stu­dents. Lipp­man and co-founder Jen­nifer Andaluz told me many of their ideas about how to edu­cate left-behind stu­dents didn’t work very well in practice.

“Our kids couldn’t read,” said Andaluz. “We didn’t real­ize how seri­ous the prob­lems were when we start­ed. We thought we’d get every­one to cal­cu­lus as seniors. It was just a mat­ter of engag­ing kids, moti­vat­ing them. We dis­cov­ered Mar­ta couldn’t mul­ti­ply 3 times 4.”

They scrapped the Alge­bra 1 book because stu­dents couldn’t read it. They added Eng­lish assis­tance for immi­grants. In the sec­ond year, they added reme­di­al Eng­lish and math. In the third year, they redesigned the ninth grade cur­ricu­lum, requir­ing most stu­dents to take reme­di­al cours­es in addi­tion to Eng­lish 1 and Alge­bra 1. In the fourth year, they raised stan­dards and told more stu­dents they’d need five years to be col­lege ready. And so on. Like its stu­dents, DCP is get­ting better.

Schools won’t improve until admin­is­tra­tors and teach­ers can admit the prob­lems, ana­lyze what’s going wrong and try new strate­gies. Stu­dents won’t improve if they think they’re “special” just the way they are. Many schools aren’t good now. But they can do better.

Joanne Jacobs- Our School

– Once a Knight Rid­der colum­nist, Joanne Jacobs now blogs on edu­ca­tion at

Her book, Our School: The Inspir­ing Sto­ry of Two Teach­ers, One Big Idea and the Char­ter School That Beat the Odds, is avail­able online and in book stores.


  1. Henry Borenson, Ed.D. on February 17, 2008 at 11:50

    Stu­dents who believe they are fail­ures will nev­er get out of the fail­ure mode. The ques­tion is how do we help them to suc­ceed, and there­by see them­selves in a new light. How do we help them to see that they are capa­ble of achiev­ing, and indeed that they can achieve at a high level? 

    The school men­tioned by Ms. Jacobs has deter­mined that the stu­dents will achieve and has set up a pro­gram of need­ed steps to accom­plish that goal. In order to accom­plish that objec­tive it need­ed to dis­card all pre­con­cep­tions of what is the nor­mal, stan­dard high school.

    Once stu­dents begin to achieve, their self-esteem is enhanced, not because they are told they have abil­i­ties they do not have, but because they are see­ing their progress– they are able to begin mak­ing sense of a book they are read­ing, they can speak in front of a group, or they solve alge­bra­ic equations.

    It is best, how­ev­er, to have steps in the school cur­ricu­lum that can pro­vide an ear­ly inter­ven­tion and show stu­dents that they are indeed capa­ble of achieve­ment at sig­nif­i­cant levels. 

    One of the best ways to accom­plish this objec­tive, that I am aware, is to pro­vide stu­dents while in grade school with strong suc­cess in alge­bra, such as solv­ing alge­bra­ic equa­tions which look advanced. For exam­ple, solv­ing equa­tions such as
    4x + 3 = 3x + 9 and being able to solve ver­bal prob­lems which involve such equa­tions con­veys to the stu­dents in a very con­crete man­ner that they have what it takes to suc­ceed in academics. 

    The Mak­ing Alge­bra Child’s Play with which I had a key role in devel­op­ing, and which are offered nation­al­ly, shows teach­ers how to use the Hands-On Equa­tions pro­gram (which I also devel­oped) to accom­plish this objective.

    We are not able to say that stu­dent self-esteem is not impor­tant; it is crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant. How­ev­er, that self-esteem needs to be based on sol­id accom­plish­ment that the stu­dent sees, oth­er­wise, as Ms. Jacobs point out, it is emp­ty air.

  2. Alex Bo on February 18, 2008 at 9:59

    The first step is always hard even it isn’t failure.

  3. Delia on February 18, 2008 at 3:55

    Amaz­ing to see that there are peo­ple who can see the big pic­ture! My back­ground in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy high­light­ed for me that many peo­ple pre­fer to lie to them­selves and their chil­dren, as it’s eas­i­er to do that than to face the truth that you may have to make an effort, and that you may have to change if you want a dif­fer­ent result. Par­ents buy into the self-esteem delu­sion beca­sue they think it will ‘hurt’ their chil­dren to face the truth. I believe that many if not most of the prob­lems that peo­ple face, not just in edu­ca­tion, are because they can’t face the truth — it’s too painful, and if they do they’ll have to change, which ter­ri­fies them. Won­der­ful that your book shows peo­ple that fac­ing the truth is so much bet­ter than run­ning from it. Thank you!

  4. Alvaro on February 18, 2008 at 11:26

    Dear Hen­ry: thank you for a beau­ti­ful com­ment. I recent­ly sat at a pan­el with Car­ol Dweck as she talked about her “Growth Mind­set” research. What Joanne stress­es, and you illus­trate, is that we (learn­ers of all ages) need to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between “being a fail­ure” and “hav­ing a fail­ure”. I agree that stu­dents need to devel­op authen­tic self esteem-the only one they will inter­nal­ize, in any case. 

    I am very curi­ous now about your alge­bra method: we’ll take a look at your web­site dur­ing the next month. And you should feel free to con­tribute to this blog in the same way Joanne has.

    Delia: thank you for your com­ment too. Will make sure Joanne sees it. I can imag­ine how this is rel­e­vant to your work in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy, espe­cial­ly if you prac­tice cog­ni­tive therapy…

    Alex: I’d say the first step is always the first step. Why is it always hard? maybe we make it so?

  5. Pat on February 26, 2008 at 1:59

    This was a great sto­ry. As a spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher, I see so much poten­tial in my stu­dents but the gen­er­al expec­ta­tion is for them to fail so the stu­dents believe they will. I set high stan­dards for my stu­dents and expect them to achieve, which sur­pris­es a lot of teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents. The only not sur­prised is myself. It is time for all edu­ca­tors to get on board with this philosophy.

  6. Angevahn on March 1, 2008 at 1:03

    I agree that this is a great sto­ry, and inter­est­ing com­ments too. As a Mas­ter Facil­i­ta­tor with The Virtues Project I pass on to oth­ers 5 sim­ple strate­gies for devel­op­ing authen­tic self-esteem — a pos­i­tive and real­is­tic sense of self that comes from with­in, that is inter­nalised. Giv­ing chil­dren feed­back regards the char­ac­ter traits they exhib­it and guid­ance as to what oth­er char­ac­ter traits are required is a pow­er­ful tool for devel­op­ing mas­tery with­in chil­dren. They all have these traits — as do we — how­ev­er, they may nev­er have been asked to show dili­gence (as opposed to work­ing hard­er), acknowl­edged for their perserver­ance or been called to prac­tise excel­lence. We do our best by chil­dren in believ­ing they are capa­ble, being real­is­tic as to what the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is, and being able to inspire them and empow­er them to grow from there. In the end, we want more kids like those described — with the inter­nal resources to pick them­selves up after a fail­ure — whether that is with edu­ca­tion learn­ing, or life learn­ing, be able to grasp what change in behav­iour / atti­tude is required, and get back in there.

  7. Alvaro on March 2, 2008 at 6:40

    Hel­lo Pat and Angevahn: thank you for adding your per­spec­tives and experiences!

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