You Can No Longer Fail in School

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

The first in a four-part series on social passes “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
— Yoda

It’s a hokey quote from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, but it’s something educators need to take to heart, because in reality, just trying, or just showing up, is not good enough in real life.

Talk radio was abuzz from coast to coast to coast in early September with the concept of ‘social passes.’

Writing for the Frontier Centre For Public Policy, one of my closest friends, Michael Zwaagstra, together with co-author Rodney A. Clifton, PhD, released a policy paper called An ‘F’ for Social Promotion. Zwaagstra has been writing educational papers for years, but this one is making some serious waves, and deserves the national attention it’s getting. That’s because it’s a wake up call to snap us out of drunken delusions our education system has allowed to become common practice.

Over the years, a well-intended, high-minded educational bureaucracy has decided to turn its back on one of the fundamental principles of human existence -failure. These days, it is next to impossible for a student to fail. The practice is called ‘social promotion.’

Zwaagstra defines social promotion as “the practice of advancing students to the next grade even if they have not met the academic requirements of their current year.”

Put another way, it doesn’t matter what you do as a student, you still pass.

Zwaagstra does not sit in some ivory tower, cooking these things up. He’s an in-the-trenches school teacher with a decade of experience. He personally has had to pass students who were unworthy, because when you’re part of the system, there’s little one teacher can do to change it.

“You have students pushed up through the system, and they’re virtually illiterate by the time they are done school,” Zwaagstra explains.

For anyone who remembers school as a place where you had to learn the three Rs, or else, a day in the classroom today is almost unrecognizable. Teachers now have nebulous goals of the well-being of the whole child, good self esteem and the like, as opposed to, “Can Johnny read or not? Can he do long division?” It’s not that easy to measure these new-fangled goals, Zwaagstra points out.

“It’s a way for the entire system to get off the hook,” he says, noting it’s simpler to administer. “You don’t have to deal with negative fallout of ‘Why you have 10 to 20 per cent of your class failing.'”

By the time teachers are instructing middle year grades, they can no longer expect everyone to be on at a common level. Far from it. Now it’s the norm to try to adapt instruction to students at several levels. A teacher can be trying to teach up to five grade levels in one class -which means, in the end, no one is properly taught.

“There is a huge disconnect between real life and the education system,” says Zwaagstra, who notes there are many teachers who are frustrated with this concept as well. They are under unbelievable pressure to pass students, even at the high school level. Teachers are often not allowed to dock marks for late assignments, and God forbid they should give a student a zero, even if it is well earned.

Listening to Zwaagstra‘s interviews on numerous talk radio shows (he’s been on 12, as of the time of writing), almost everyone who called in agreed, kids need to be allowed to fail. The only person I heard agree with social passes was a former teacher who had done it himself.

Zwaagstra notes it’s unpopular with parents, so most places don’t formalize the policy in writing. But everyone has to live by it. “They absolutely do practise it.”

— Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at