Failure IS an Option

We have been around a long time, both over 40 years in education, and worked in many parts of the country. One of us, mostly as a building principal, and the other as former teacher, counselor, and union business agent. We have heard lots of rhetoric about what needs to happen and have seen many successful and failed attempts at increasing learning and positively changing school culture. Most of all, lots of talk, some action, and little follow through for effective implementation.

Using a line from the movie Apollo 13 a popular book was written with the title, Failure Is Not An Option. Bullfeathers! Failure IS an option, open your eyes for crying out loud. Failure is not the option we would choose, but we are seeing it in lots of places. What do you see in districts across the country? There is a continual draining of the intellectual horsepower we need to change and sustain ongoing learning in our schools. Cut the crap and let’s get serious. Failure is an option, happening day in day out, year in and year out? AND it is a condition we choose not to change. We would prefer to change this trend for students, staff, and community.

We know the author of “Failure is NOT an Option” meant well – and had some possibilities for helping students learn were presented. There are tomes of books written on countless library shelves written with the same intent.. We have many of them on our shelves

While there are always pockets of success in just about every school and every school system, the overall the effects of all this passionate call for change have been dismal, if not, debilitating. Our experience can be likened to a reverse “butterfly effect.” Huge amounts of planning and effort and funding resulting in very little change.

Here are some of our thoughts from two old guys who have been around the block (not new kids on the block).

  1. We have enough teachers. We produce or graduate way more people than are needed as teachers. They simply choose not to teach. And, somewhere around 50% of those who try teaching leave the field within 5 years. Why? We need to look at the culture of school and working conditions.
  1. Other countries who were at the bottom in many metrics have turned their educational systems around (Finland, Canada, etc). How are they doing it? Why won’t we learn from them and execute policy and protocols that make a difference in learning? They learned a lot from us and then made adjustments. (See Surpassing Shanghai)
  1. Authors, consultants, and professors continue to pump out ‘silver bullets’ which are attractive in their appeal and much less in their sustainable results. Why do we keep chasing the ‘silver bullet’ and not do the hard work necessary to create a system that produces the culture that results in learning? How much money is wasted jumping from program to program, aptly named by Abramson, the “repetitive change syndrome”?
  1. Working with humans is messy. Are we ever going to admit there is not one answer to our educational problems – no silver bullet? Are we going to continue to keep the Blame-Shame Game going? The Blame-Shame Game has not produced a sustainable program or policy that helps kids learn. Accountability and responsibility do not have to be shame-based.
  1. In the past, when up against the wall, the United States has always finally said, OK, let’s pull together and get these problems resolved. Will the polarization that exists on many issues facing our country continue to sacrifice our future by stopping meaningful changes in our educational system? Or will enough people finally say, let’s get this organized and start fixing the problem? I don’t know the answer at this time in our history. AND, I am willing to be part of figuring it out.
  1. The economic gap continues to grow. Do you really think this is sustainable for our country? Has anyone heard about South Africa? (quoting Kris Kristofferson but “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”). A European, when asked why he didn’t want to make more money by sacrificing the workers responded, “I don’t want to be a rich person in a poor country.” Poverty affects learning, let’s deal with it, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. (See 50 Myths and Lies about Education by Berliner & Glass)
  1. “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that; and whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” Ron Edmonds, 1979. So, will we? It is not about knowledge, we think it is about will, skill and commitment.
  1. Politics, not learning. In a book titled “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.” One of the six dead ideas mentioned is about school boards. Do we really think that superintendents, who live on a 4-3 or 5-4 vote by the board will make the best educational decision or will they make the political decision to keep their job? There are examples of great superintendents that have the knowledge and courage to make the right calls. We know some of them and have worked for a few. Heavy emphasis on the word few. Do we really think that approximately 15,000 school boards can gain some commonality that other countries have in terms of focus?
  1. Leadership matters, duh! Fewer teachers want to be administrators. Most teachers say, “I wouldn’t want to put up with what my administrator has to deal with on a daily basis.” A few years ago with the administrator pool declining, states migrated to alternative licensing. As with many alternative pathways into education, there are some who are great and can be an asset to the school. Look at the data of ‘Teacher for America’ etc. There are some great teacher who come out of TFA. Can we really build a sustainable system with a 50% turnover rate every two years? 80% by 5 years? Can the current trend of doing coursework online replace the human side of leadership?
  1. Education is NOT a priority in the United States. Every time education has come to the forefront something more important (to those in positions of power) have trumped education. In the 70s, savings and loan took center stage. In the 80s, oil and the Manufactured Crisis (Berliner & Biddle). In the 90s, technology was the most important. In the 2000s we have decided to vilify those who are doing the work keeping the social fabric together. If we want to be compared on PISA scores, why not do what other countries are doing to be successful. Juan Enriquez, Harvard, wrote in “The Untied States of American” (untied, not united) that every country decides what it wants to be number in.  Brazil chose soccer, Korea chose math and science. It seems to us the United States has chosen entertainment.

So, to quote a song title by the Eagles, “Get Over It.” The real question is, ‘are we going to make the hard decisions to change the results or not.’ Let’s quit pretending and get to work.

Finally, to quote an author, great human being, and friend who passed away this year, Angeles Arrien, “if your business is about waking up the dead, GET UP, TODAY IS A WORK DAY.”


Arrien, Angeles.  The Four-Fold Way: Walking Paths of the Warrior,  Teacher, Healer, and Visionary.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Berliner, David & Biddle, Bruce.  The Manufactured Crisis.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

Berliner, David & Glass, Gene. (2014). 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public    Schools.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Enriquez, Juan. (2005). The Untied States of America. New York: Crown Publishers.

Miller, M. (2009). The tyranny of dead ideas. New York: Times Books

Tucker, M. (ed). (2012). Surpassing Shanghai. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education  Press.


Also on the Igniting Learning Blog


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!