Designed to Fail

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.” - E. F. Schumacher

Much has been written about the design of the current U.S. educational system. It is well recognized that the model largely in play is a factory model born out of the industrial era. For years, teachers have voiced their issues with efforts to hold them accountable for students performing on grade level, when they have no control over the readiness of the students that walk through their door.

Still, many well-intended legislators, state departments, school boards, and administrative leadership teams continue to try to make the current system work. They become more adamant that teachers teach all their same-age students grade level standards and become more and more prescriptive about what to teach all students on what day and in what way. In other words, they insist more loudly that the industrial model must work, failing to understand that it is designed to fail.

Here’s why.

We have all been exposed to the normal curve in our education preparation courses. If we employ research from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) to the normal curve, we can quickly see the dilemma. Since I am in South Carolina, I will illustrate the issue with NWEA’s South Carolina Linking Study found at, but you can do the same analysis for your state and it’s likely you will find the same phenomenon.

This is a snapshot from the South Carolina linking study showing the required RIT score and associated percentile for students in grades K through 8 to perform at various levels on the SC Ready state accountability assessment. Notice that for a student to be at the “Meets” level in math, the percentile ranges from the 43rd to 68th percentile.

If we apply that information to the normal curve (courtesy of, then we see the problem as plainly as seeing the nose on our face. Keep in mind that state accountability tests still in use today were designed with the requirements from No Child Left Behind and those included that students be tested only with items that are from the grade level standards.

The “Meets” descriptor, then, suggests that these are the students that are meeting grade level achievement expectations. And, for grades 3 through 8, then, that means that more than half of the “average” students will not be achieving on grade level by design. By the time students get to 7th grade, the system is designed to fail 64% of the students.

The system is similar for ELA. This figure represents the phenomenon for third graders in South Carolina. In this illustration, the tan highlights indicate where students are typically performing to qualify for special education for academic reasons.

As more and more emphasis is placed on teaching grade level standards to all students, teachers find little support for differentiating or individualizing instruction, especially if it means reaching students off-grade-level, whether below or above grade level.

The impact of this is predictable:

*More and more students, parents, and teachers are frustrated.

*The achievement gap grows.

*More students require interventions which require more staff and more funding.

*More referrals are made to special education.

*The needs of highest performing students are often unmet.

Yet, the drum beat continues. “If teachers would only do a better job teaching grade level standards, our students would achieve.”

There are better ways. Vygotsky pointed us in the right direction with his Zone of Proximal Development. Advances in personal learning theory are headed in a better direction, as well. It’s time we start meeting students where they are, regardless of age, and move them forward as quickly as we can, but as slowly as we need to, to achieve mastery of learning outcomes. Let’s stop the insanity.

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