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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.

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7 Responses

  1. 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 says:

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

  3. Delia says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

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

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