By Shelly Blake-Plock

Imagine if schools were judged not by how well students achieved while they were in school, but in how well they achieved once they left. If schools saw their worth not in how many kids got accepted to college, but in how many kids went on to live meaningful and engaged lives and who would point back to their school years as the point of relevancy that was the foundation of it all.

If schools gauged themselves not by how many kids passed a test, but in how well it prepared those kids who did not pass the test to see themselves as worthy of respect and ready to take on the challenges of life. In fact, if schools worked to make entrepreneurs and role models of every kid who failed a standardized exam. If failure became a calling card for innovation.

If schools prided themselves on knowing the dreams of the quiet kids. If they prided themselves on helping those kids attain those dreams.

Dreams don’t always fit into curricula.

Neither do successful failures.

We need schools that recognize failure as being as much a matter of how well one fits into a prescribed system than how well one understands, well, much of anything really.

And kids know we are blowing smoke when we give lip-service to how everyone should think outside-the-box and then we hand them a box and tell them that everything they’ve learned should fit back into it. And when they leave things outside-the-box we define them as failures.

We do this at our increased peril.

Because we are all failures of one sort or another. And though we like to focus on what we consider positive, it is more often the case that we live in a world comprised of systems of struggle and unanswerable questions. And we fail on a regular basis. And we need students who understand how to fail.

And we know this, yet we continue to punish students who fail — as though our invented system of textbooks and number-two pencils were a better predictor of intellectual and creative capacity than life itself.

I wonder if I did a good enough job explaining that to my students. I wonder about the students who slipped through. I wonder about the ones who failed out.

I feel like they are the ones we should be talking to.

They are the ones who understand the impact of schooling. Enough of the smartest kids in the class always getting to answer the questions. I want to hear from the kids for whom school didn’t work. I want to hear from the alumni who feel cheated by the system. I want our schools to be judged by how well we respected the humanity of the student who graduated with the lowest GPA and how we celebrated and engaged his or her capacity within society.

Because we are a society, we are connected one and all; and ultimately, if school is not relevant for that kid, school is not relevant for any kid.

Shelly Blake-Plock is an educator and blogger-in-chief of Teachpaperless, where a portion of this post originally appeared. He’s the writer of 21 Things That Will Be Obsolete in 2020.
If School is Not Relevant 24 February,2012MindShift

  • Amen

  • Vfkdoggers

    I didn’t fail out but I was told by my HS counselor that I would never amount to anything if I didn’t end my pregnancy when I was 16. Fortunately, I had an English Lit teacher who believed that I should consider college because he thought I would do well there. I didn’t go to college until I was 26 and my three children were in school but I did graduate with honors and I work at one of the top hospitals in the region. I’m one of those children who, except for one lone teacher, was not encouraged to be more because I was deemed unworthy of the effort. I love this post…thanks for a chance to share my voice.

  • Craigdumont3

    I am deeply touched by this article. It reminds me of a discussion a whole group of educators had about the purpose of our communication with learners. Do we communicate our subject content only? Or do we also communicate purpose? For the entire conversation we chose to look at our challenges with learners not grasping the content instead of the latter. Are we perhaps scared to venture to a greater understanding of our role as educators? Our roles present the platform to influence and give hope. 

  • JE

    If a student is not getting their basic needs met, learning becomes irrelevant to them, unless it becomes a “way out” of the situation their in. Teachers who listen and address a students basic needs are more likely to reach down to a place where a hope seed can be planted.  I once had a failing student who was a cutter, and seemed to be preoccupied with death.  We spent the first few minutes a day just talking.  We discovered it takes a special kind of person to deal with death.  We arranged a field trip to visit the local funeral home and interview the director and embalmer.  She didn’t follow her dream of becoming a funeral director, but she did graduate and join the army, and is seeing to it that the needs of her children are being met. 

  • Arogop

    All too often the kid with the low GPA is one of the most gifted in the class.  The kid is ignored, bored, or forced to think like one of the pack.  Failure to address individual needs runs rampant in many schools.

  • Aliciareids

    So true.  Unfortunately I see the results, as I score standardized tests.  Not only are the tests incapable of much more than illustrating adequacy, the stressors placed upon the students are enormous, while the test developers and subsequently the teachers fail to illuminate exactly what it is they are really attempting to measure and therefore the student’s understanding of the problem/question is highly invididualized despite rehearsal, which means that the student can’t respond successfully. 

  • Sue

    I did go to this school. Its called Walkabout and its inYorktown, NY

  • School never failed any child. School was not made to benefit children, but this society’s corporate masters. All those kids are exactly where they are needed: in jail, graveyards, the army, the street, dead-end jobs or unemployed, etc, ad nauseum. Oh, and the occasional, token exception.

    School is not a failure. It is a magnificent success. Only when this is grasped fully and with eyes wide open will reformers radicalize and schools empty. We’ve had enough sentimentality about schools. They are brutal destroyers of children’s souls, breakers of families, and enslavers of humanity. Schooling could never be anything else. Down forever with schools.

    • Amanda

      Oh, I couldn’t have said it better myself. “Down forever with schools” and the corporate sausage machine!

  • Grtsptone

    we need schools that recognize ‘failure’ as a judgment or evaluation born of comparisons that suit the reality of the individual. love the article and it’s call for autonomy, equality, and respect of people regardless of age, and learning capacity at a given moment in time.

  • @coachdrn

    In this article you lay the bulk of the responsibility at the feet of the school, but don’t forget that schools are at the mercy of the hoops that the state makes them jump through. Many schools, especially those in high poverty areas, are under the close watch of the government that uses only numbers to determine success and failure. My point is, before you call your teachers and principals your first call should be to your governor and statesmen.

  • 21stPrin

    Great thoughts. We too often say we are “doing school differently” but we really aren’t. However, there is a HUGE obstacle to overcome before change can truly happen — the expectations of parents. They still see achievement and success in terms of receiving an “A”. This is a huge paradigm shift that may be the most difficult to navigate.

  • C Marie119

    Please encourage proofreaders to capitalize the “is” in headlines. It is a short word, yes. But it is not a preposition; it is a verb, and it should be capitalized in titles and headlines.

    Thank you for this article. The idea, as I understand it, is not to encourage ignorance but to acknowledge difference and, if the standard way isn’t working, to encourage success in nonstandard ways.

  • Contenta16

    My name is Leslie Fail. I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I agree that is important to teach our children to be life long learners rather than teach to the test. Many teachers spend too much time preparing their students for the next test rather than teaching.

  • I was a teacher’s pet and a brilliant success in school; but learned nothing of notable value for my adult life. It was a twelve year postponement of my education. I did catch up pretty well, but I think learning would have been much more efficient when I was a child and more relaxed about life. Since everything that I have learned and used as an adult I learned without instruction or testing, I am convinced that instruction and testing have no value for learning. My home also has better and a bigger variety of equipment of all sorts than any of the schools I went to.

  • TexasTeacher

    As a teacher I would like to offer my two cents.  Most teachers will agree with everything in this article.  Unfortunately, we are the bottom part of the totem pole and most often are told what to do.  Every day of the school year is scripted for me by the curriculum departments.  I would love to “meet the kids where they are at” and put the tests on the back burner, but it isn’t my choice.  Most of us are trying to minimize the damage as much as teach and inspire.

    • irene

       So mtrue- and at what expense to each district – what is the cost even for one year for the curriculum supervisors? Didn’t the colleges prepare teachers to each? Haven’t they all been prepared?  So the district’s curriculum professionals add a level of cost- monetarily as well as educationally- to all of us… and year after year for the last 15-20 years this goes on and on.

  • mindpretzels

    so what’s the alternative?

    • I say that we should GET that feedback!  My students and I read this article last week, as well as a previous (and longer) version of the same post on the site, and have decided that we’re actually going to seek out the kind of feedback called for in the article.  We’re calling it “The After-School Project” and on March 2nd we’re going to begin a social media call for responses to the question, “How well did your K-12 education prepare you for your life?”  We’ve teamed up with a local university and are going to form a data pool of people’s reflections, and then see what we find.  This pool would be hosted on Youtube, thus allowing anyone to view the videos, analyze their own data, and draw their own conclusion.  Please stay tuned for #theafterschoolproject launch and please submit a video reflection when my students create the call for submissions video on the 2nd. 

  • 4jeffries

    Amen and amen.

  • Ytyvtyt352


  • Jenny_carnie

    I think some teachers are quick to judge a student. Kids normally don’t behave the same way, they behave at home. Some kids want so much to be popular in school while others don’t really care. And popular kid most of the time gets into trouble. And its sad that teachers feel it’s okay to pick on kids, who talk differently and act differently to others. Teachers please don’t judge, 

  • Amanda

    Can only agree! When I was in grade 7, we wrote an IQ test. Days later I was called into the deputy principal’s office and told to drop maths and to forget about university. He advised me to consider a technical college. I listened to him. He set my life back about 10 yrs. Now 20 years later, I have 4 degrees and am in my 3rd year of my PhD. Did I mention that I managed to get distinctions for statistics at university despite being told that I was an idiot with numbers. My son, at 13, is going through the same system of soul destroying standardisation and worth based on test scores. I have to build him up every day. Down with this ridiculous system!!!!!!

    • irene

       Why don’t you pull him out of school so that he doesn’t face these issues daily?

      • Amanda

        And put him where exactly? I am afraid that schools which nurture and feed our kids creativity simply do not exist. It is quite simply a system of standardisation based on a never-ending cycle of tests and examinations. Sounds a bit defeatist but if I didn’t have to work for a living and try and squeeze everything I have to do into 24 hrs, then perhaps I could go out on a one-woman crusade and try and change the education system single-handedly.

        • liz

          you could always homeschool… I know you said that you work. But so does everyone else.let him persue his interests durring the day and teach him n nights and weekends. Homeschool all year and take short breaks more often so you don’t feel so cramped trying to fit everything into the traditional school year. How old is your son? If you don’t have time to teach him look for a good online school or check out the unschooling philosophy and let your son follow his own interests to wherever they might lead him and if he ends up not needing algebra then he didn’t just waste a year learning an unuseful skill that he wasn’t interested in to begin with and probly won’t remember 5 yrs later anyways. Also Waldorf schools nurture creativity and don’t. Use tests at all so there are plenty of options it really is just a question of what are you willing to do

        • xnlover

          Besides Waldorf Schools that liz mentions, there are also Sudbury Schools, one of which rents space in the church I serve as pastor near Chicago, IL. Obviously, such alternative schools as these and others are not in all areas of the country, but they do exist. I even wonder if there might not be materials online that a mature 13 year old could access with parental assistance so as to become self-educating. Not being a parent, it’s easy for me to give advice; but if I were a parent, and I had tried to work with the local schools to improve my child’s educational, social and psychological outcomes and been unsuccessful, I would do whatever I could to find alternatives that would bring me and my child greater satisfaction. I’d say, start with your state’s Department of Education website and see what alternatives to local public schools might be listed there. And google “alternative schools” and your state and city names. Don’t give up! Good luck!

  • Balzacbee

    Our charter school tries to keep in touch with kids after they graduate.  We try and monitor, yet we’re still pretty young as a school; consequently, the process is still in its infancy. 

  • Anonymous

    The schools work the way they were designed to work.  If we want different outcomes, then we need to create different schools.

  • Capribound

    I was identified as “gifted”. Then “underachieving gifted”. Then the gifted program went away.      A curious mind will learn despite any education system. How do we cultivate curiosity?

  • Annie Joberoi

    Thia article touches a chord in me.throughout school I was very quite and my ideas were always so different that it led me to get deeper into my shell for fear of being ridiculed…Which a few of my  teachers and most of my peers did…… Today I am a teacher and it is my driving mantra to let each of my students to enjoy the ‘doing’ and ‘learning’ and be absolutely comfortable with ‘failures’ and ‘mistakes’…..Guess what, this brings out every student of mine to be in an amazing comfort zone that makes magic happen for each one… believe in themselves and their strengths…to accept failure as a milestone that leads one closer to his/her capabilities to contribute responsibly to society..

  • Burgess

    There is a place that does this.


     I am from India(n school system). I did not do well at all in school, but did very well in
    competitive exams that I prepared for on my own. However I was very fortunate in having
    access to several different libraries in the city thanks to my librarian dad. I believe schools
    today represents the other side of human nature. In fact only today afternoon I was told
    by a high school student here in Oregon that “school is labor camp”. However, technology
    can change that. Most of the things you mentioned is achievable today via technology.
    What prevents a non-profit organization from producing the necessary intelligence to
    answer the questions you pose such as “how many kids went on to live meaningful and
    engaged lives and who would
    point back to their school years as the point of relevancy
    that was the
    foundation of it all”?

    Our schools emphasize development of the individual as a sole entity rather than an individual
    of a larger society. Kids are not encouraged to seek differences and understand them.
    What if kids were encouraged to seek people they are uncomfortable with, find the reasons for
    the discomfort and understand it? They will learn to respect the opposing view and grow up
    to be well rounded individuals.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • NW Raven

    I’m seeing this post a year after it was written, but want to thank you for it. The solution does not lie in the current schooling paradigm, because it was created to remove kids from the workforce and produce adult workers who become willing cogs in the industrial machine. [See Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams: What Is School For?” (] Obviously, the world that needed those kinds of workers no longer exists. We need a completely different paradigm that provides space, time and freedom for students to pursue the things they are passionate about. Creativity and curiosity don’t need to be taught or cultivated. People are born with those qualities and will develop them throughout their lives if they are not prevented by someone else’s agenda for how they “should” be spending their time. There are options for students, from Sudbury schools ( to unschooling to self-directed learning.

  • David

    I almost join Andrew Durham:

    School never failed any child. School was not made to benefit children, but this society’s corporate and government masters. All those kids are exactly where they are needed: in jail, graveyards, the army, the street, dead-end jobs or unemployed, etc, ad nauseam. Oh, and the occasional, token exception.

    School is not a failure. It is a magnificent success. Only when this is grasped fully and with eyes wide open will reformers radicalize and schools empty. We’ve had enough sentimentality about schools. They are brutal destroyers of children’s souls, breakers of families, and enslavers of humanity. Schooling could never be anything else. Down forever with schools.

    All of them, except for Sudbury Valley School (, and Sudbury model school which are schools for the real world.

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