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Posted at 5:07 PM ET, 04/ 9/2010

Sorry Geoffrey Canada, but failure IS an option, a reality, and even a boon

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture.

By Diana Senechal
Calling for more school choice, Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, began his March 27 New York Daily News op-ed with the following:

"Visitors to my public charter school often ask how the students feel about the signs on the walls that say: ’Failure is not an option.’ They are surprised to hear that the signs are really for the staff."

There are two ethical problems with declaring that failure is not an option. First of all, failure exists everywhere, chosen or not, and to deny it is to deny reality. Second, without the option of failure, we would have no freedom of will; we would have to succeed at everything, and the success would lose meaning.

It makes sense to say that failure should be no one’s automatic destiny, that no one should be set up for failure.

The Harlem Children’s Zone, a high-profile and well-funded organization, aims at breaking the cycle of poverty for Harlem children through a combination of education and social services. Using a “conveyor belt” model, which takes children from infancy up to college, the HCZ strives to provide seamless supports so that no child falls through the cracks.

Its efforts and achievements are for the most part admirable. Its schools include the Promise Academy Charter Schools. Curiously, grades 7 and 8 are not mentioned on the Promise Academy Web site (although the HCZ Web site does mention them).

What happened to those grades? Apparently failure happens even in the HCZ. In March 2007, Canada announced that he was phasing out the Promise Academy middle school, which originally was intended to expand into a high school. The graduating eighth graders would have to find high schools elsewhere. And there would be no incoming sixth grade. Why?

The preliminary test scores weren’t high enough. (See chapter 10 of Paul Tough’s "Whatever It Takes"). Performance has since improved, but no one has bothered to put the seventh and eighth grades on the Promise Academy Web site. If “failure is not an option,” then presumably those who fail cannot fully exist.

And existence is then limited. If we deny that failure happens, we disregard wars, famines, and other disasters; we wish away low test scores, college rejections, romantic rejections, divorce, addiction, death, injustice, car accidents, lost jobs, misspelled words, stutters, misunderstandings, and our daily mistakes and slippages. Those who take on the slogan “failure is not an option” wittingly or unwittingly paint over their lives and the lives of others, and the result is not only false but flat. Such a paint job can’t hold a candle to humanity.

Failure can be inconsequential, crushing, or anything in between, but we need failure as much as we need success. Our successes and failures, in combination, teach us about the world and ourselves. They help us understand history, literature, science, arts; they show us who we are, what we do well, whom we love, what we desire, what our limits are and aren’t, and how our private and public lives meet and part. Moreover, they are ambiguous. The narrator of Robert Browning’s poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” suggests that failures may be successes in disguise and vice versa:

For thence,—a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks,—
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i’ the scale.

Without failures, we would be a fraction of ourselves. If we were to limit ourselves to successful actions only, we would keep the sugar bowl close to the teacup, lest we drop a grain or two when transporting the spoon. Whenever failures did occur, people would try to hide them through cheating, lowered standards, and deceptive jargon.

Some may take this as a call for lower standards or for giving in. It is the opposite. The more substantial our undertakings, the likelier we are to fail along the way. What matters is what we do with our failures. Some we may just toss aside. Some we may examine closely. But if we believe they shouldn’t happen or try to obliterate them, our learning and understanding will suffer; we will fall for what G. K. Chesterton delightfully termed “The Fallacy of Success.”

Where did the phrase “failure is not an option” come from? It has cropped up in much motivational and education literature over the past few decades, but its origins are unclear. It is sometimes attributed to Gene Kranz, former NASA flight director who directed the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew in 1970. In fact it was the film Apollo 13 that put the words in his mouth, and he later used it as the title of his autobiography. Ironically, his famed team responded to a failure: the explosion of a cryogenic tank in the spacecraft’s service module.

Granted, they were determined not to fail at that point—but failure had happened, and it would happen to spacecrafts in the future.

Failure is an option, a reality, and even a boon now and then. So is success. In thousands of ways, the two combine in our lives. Through education, practice, and hard knocks, we learn to take part in the shaping.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 9, 2010; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Diana Senechal, Harlem Children's Zone, Harlem zone, education reform, guest bloggers, hcz, reform in Harlem  
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Next: Diane Ravitch’s letter to Florida lawmakers


"Visitors to my public charter school often ask how the students feel about the signs on the walls that say: ’Failure is not an option.’ They are surprised to hear that the signs are really for the staff."
When a student in a public charter school is continuously disruptive the answer is to ship the student back to the public school system. Since the student is not there failure is not an option.

Imagine how easy it would be to improve education in public schools if the answer to continuously disruptive students were to ship them permanently to public reform charter schools.

Posted by: bsallamack | April 9, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I admire what Geoffrey Canada is doing and would like to see his concept of cradle to college education spread to all our poorest cities. That said, I still agree with Diana that Canada is just ignoring certain realities. For example, his students did not do well on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills so he is "solving" that problem by eliminating that test (or so I've heard).

Failure is a great teacher. If Canada's students, or any other students, are not achieving at acceptable levels, we need to ask why.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 9, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Diane's point here. Sometimes failure is the route to discovery. We should still try to avoid failure, and we should consider the scale and the duration of the failure in question. Much of this discussion reminds me of Carol Dweck's "Mindset." People with a growth mindset see failures as setbacks the provide a learning opportunity. When failure is a label for a person rather than a description of an outcome, that's where we run into problems.

Posted by: DavidBCohen | April 9, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

I honestly don't see the point of columns like this. Is it so that failing systems can say well at least he is not perfect. If you have read Paul Tough's book you see that Canada has been very candid about failures. He has been much more willing to admit, face and adjust than most school systems obviously easier given the small enterprise. But he is also doing what many claim is missing from NCLB addressing issues that affect children's learning so for that we lambaste him for an inspirational phrase. Honestly, the failure phrase is very apt considering the source of appollo 13. It was termed a successful failure, while mission objectives were no occomplished the loss was minimized. The author is right 100% will never happen 100% of the time, but I think we can look at both the success and failures of BCZ and learn from them. I really wish less effort would be put into nit picking and more into what is really succeeding and why. Canada has dedicated his life to work for a lot of children who were abandoned by our society. We demean the debate with this type of column.

Posted by: Brooklander | April 10, 2010 7:35 AM | Report abuse

Great essay, Diana. Your attempt at reformulating Canada's statement -- which has great intentions but lacks discrimination -- has inspired me to create a lesson that I hope will focus on my students' critical-thinking skills.

I'm thinking of concluding it with this prompt: "Consider the often-repeated statement, 'Failure is not an option.' The spirit of the statement is inspiring, but some have argued that the statement is self-defeating, unduly limiting, or simply untrue. Revise the initial version into an original epigram about 'failure,' and write a short essay that accomplishes both of the following: 1) explain why your epigram is valid in its own right and 2) justify it as superior to the initial version." I may also require your tactic of alluding to literature to help develop rhetorical force. Thanks for making me think!

Posted by: carlrosin | April 10, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Wow, this inspirational article makes me want to go out and fail!

Not exactly -- I know failure will come on its own, as it has many times. And I know how much I've learned from it.

It was an inspirational article, though thank you.

I think the original "failure is not an option" statement about the NASA emergency was more like a call to not give up and to fight to the end.

Posted by: efavorite | April 10, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

You missed Canada's point completely. When Canada says "Failure is not an option" he's speaking about failure of the group, not of any individual. Does anyone really believe that he could not understand that failure is a necessary component of life?

Posted by: bbonin | April 13, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Groups can learn from failure, too. Canada failed to keep his promise to the graduating eighth graders in 2007--the promise to take them all the way up to college. Granted, he did this in order to focus his efforts and figure out how to do it right. Whether he did the right or wrong thing, it was a difficult decision, and many considerations went into it.

The same is true of a group decision--groups must wrestle with complexities just as individuals must. "Failure is not an option" sounds like propaganda. It is vaguely condescending; it's not true or helpful. Surely Canada knows better--wouldn't he expect the teachers to know better, too? Wouldn't he trust their capacity as thoughtful and dedicated individuals working together?

Many schools seem to be caught up in a slogan craze, and that doesn't encourage independent thought or careful use of language--the very things we should be encouraging in students.

In "Politics and the English Language" (1946), Orwell wrote:

"The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases--bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder--one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them."

Posted by: DianaSenechal | April 13, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

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