How do we perceive “failing”?

Experiment: A little tiny bit of a bigger argument.

The current discourse around education is that it is failing, that schools are terrible, and that the only way to ensure better education is through fundamental change. The evidence surrounding this claim is much more interesting than I would have expected. American parents surveyed reported “generally favorable views of their local schools”, a stunning 76% rated the quality of education for their children as better than what they received, and  65% of parents said their child had at least one excellent teacher (Tompson, Benz & Agiesta, pp. 1-2). Gallop finds consistent results that parents rate their local public schools in their community quite highly (14% A grades, 43% B grades, 29% C grades) but the public schools in the nation as a whole very poorly (48% C grades, only 4% A grades, 15% B grades) (Richardson & Bushaw, 2013, p. 20). These data have stayed remarkably consistent from 1985 through now. So, I wonder, with so many drastic changes in education, why is perception still very low? I think it has to do with the perception of “failing”.

There are many wonderful books on this topic (I especially suggest reading Diane Ravitch’s  The Life and Death of the American School System) and a lot of research conducted about the actual or perceived failing of schools. I want to take a little bit of a softer approach.

Maybe this is all a matter of perception. In something so close to our collective well-being like education, perhaps we always want it to improve. If the Gallup pole had gone on to ask about the importance of education or how much people believe that education shapes the future, I’m sure the response would have been overwhelmingly that it is one of the most important duties of society. From that starting point, who would say “eh, it’s fine, no need to change anything”?! When we care about something deeply, even great progress is not enough. There is always more work and more improvement to be made. The perception of a failing school may be just that it has not improved as much as we had hoped because we want it to be amazing and perfect. There is not a standard measurement here and what we want from education is always shifting.

I’ll give an example from the other side of my life; music! An interesting fellow student warned me that studying music would ruin music for me. . . while we were sitting in Music Theory I, our first semester of university. Even at the time it seemed pretty pessimistic, but I understood the premise. I feel very passionate about studying music and during those years I gained the skills to be an excellent critic of music. For the rest of my life, I am trained to find the flaws of my own music and others. No piece of music will ever seem good enough and I’ll always see my own playing as failure.

But interestingly, I’ve also learned to take a step back from that and to see the beauty in imperfect music without having to label it as failing. (This is a necessity when you are teaching grade 1 students to improvise!) Maybe because music is much harder to measure, I don’t have to constantly judge it against a standard. The way that I understand a performance are allowed to have a context rather than be judged against some universal truth about music achievement. When Gallup adds a context to asking about the quality of public schools, parent satisfaction is much higher. Perhaps we are perceiving our own constant striving for quality pessimistically  and not seeing the progress.


Richardson, J., & Bushaw, W. J. (2015). The 47th Annual PDK/Gallup. Retrieved from

Tompson, T., Benz, J., & Agiesta, J. (2013). Parents Attitudes on the Quality of Education in the United States. Retrieved from

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(I climbed up. Not very far. But still I wouldn’t label it a failure)

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