Failure is (and must be) an option

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

—Colin Powell

There isn’t a Common Core supporter in the nation who hasn’t qualified her enthusiasm for what the standards can do with “if they are implemented properly.” On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s a Common Core opponent who isn’t standing in the wings, waiting for implementation to fail.

It’s only by allowing the chance for failure that standards can have any real meaning.

This is often the point in a new initiative when supporters feel most vulnerable and start scrambling to figure out how to avoid high profile failures. But, if we’ve going to succeed in this venture, we shouldn’t be trying to avoid failure, we should be looking to shine a spotlight on it and embrace it as a key element of change. It’s only by allowing the chance for failure that standards can have any real meaning.

This is something that KIPP understands intimately. KIPP has become perhaps the most well-known charter model not just because it was the first CMO to achieve national scale, but also because it’s been consistently the most successful. There are KIPP schools around the country that beat the odds and that do amazing things for the students in their care.

Of course, there are also KIPP schools that haven’t lived up to the promise of the best among them. Schools that opened to great promise, but whose achievement lagged, or whose doors were forced to close due to poor management, low test scores, or a failure to raise enough money.

The reason KIPP has so many schools worth celebrating is exactly because they accept that failure may well be a critical element of success.

Some may point to those schools—the “failures”—as proof that network isn’t worthy of the praise it often receives. In reality, though, the opposite is true. The reason KIPP has so many schools worth celebrating is exactly because they accept that failure may well be a critical element of success.

The KIPP model differs from many traditional public school districts in a few important ways. First, their model is entrepreneurial. Whereas most principals serve effectively as middle managers who report to—and are often constrained by—state and district leaders, KIPP principals are true CEOs. While they receive support from the network, they are free to use or ignore whatever suggestions they’re given. And they rise and fall on their own merit.

This freedom is no doubt scary to the central office, which watches as school leaders make less-than-ideal decisions. But it’s also what allows for the innovation that has enabled KIPP schools to make extraordinary gains in difficult situations.

Second, KIPP doesn’t hide its failure. On the contrary, they set a clear standard, and shine an unflinching spotlight on both their successes and their failures through the KIPP report cards.

Third, KIPP has learned from the often-cited business maxim that organizations should “feed success and starve failure.” KIPP leaders focus their energy on growing success—on investing heavily in the teachers, leaders, and schools that demonstrate the greatest promise and that deserve to see their work reach the lives of more kids. Schools that fail year after year to meet this high standard are shut down or removed from the network.

This tolerance for failure and investment in success is fairly unique to KIPP. Too many state and district policies are focused on avoiding failure—sometimes at all costs. And, while such policies might avoid catastrophic failure, they are a poor recipe for success.

As we look towards Common Core implementation, and even as we see sharks in the water circling and waiting for us to fail, we need to focus our efforts on setting a high bar for successful implementation, highlighting both what is working and what is not, and then vigorously pursuing a policy of scaling up what works and shutting down what doesn’t. Having the confidence to embrace the necessity of these failures is what will allow us to succeed.

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