The politics of school “no-fail” policies

No-fail and social promotion policies are primarily about feel good politics. Meaning that they are about what politicians and bureaucrats feel are important based on government funded commissions, polling and research reports. In the case of these particular policies, it is ostensibly about maintaining a student’s positive self-image and self-esteem.

The result? Social promotion is now the norm in Ontario, and I suspect throughout the rest of Canada and the U.S.  For example, as John Robbins reported to me in a telephone interview in preparation for his column in the Niagara Falls Review (which was subsequently picked up by blogs such as The Education Reporter and Fixing Our Schools), public school boards in the Niagara region use the term “transferred” rather than “promoted” when a child has actually failed. 

Yet, it’s interesting that the Ontario government goes out of its way to suggest they do not have a no-fail policy, that lots of students are held back. However, that is not the way teachers see it. As the Toronto Star reports, the York board of education failed to promote only 6 Grade 8 students out of a total of 8064 last year and only one the year before that. 

So, how did this all start? In Ontario, it was the release of the Hall-Dennis Report in the Ontario legislature in 1968 that changed everything. Built on earlier work by Ralph Tyler in the United States, the Hall-Dennis report was controversial from day one because it  advocated: “Individualized programs of instruction for the development of the potentialities of the child, the removal of corporal punishment, and the de-emphasis of competition in the classroom and rote learning.”

So, is it true that students who are “transferred” don’t feel bad about themselves because they did not formally fail? Actually, no, it’s not true. Children and teens already know they are struggling to read, write or do math. They already know because when the teacher calls on them, they may cringe when they cannot respond as they should.

Actually, I know how many feel from personal experience having operated my own private special education practice and reading clinic for research purposes when I was teaching university. In every single preliminary interview, young, or middle aged adults would tell me something to the effect: “I knew I was failing as far back as Grade 3 because….”   

So, don’t blame teachers. They are provided with government and school board curriculum documents. True, there is some variation from class to class and subject to subject in terms of subject units of study, but as far as board and government policies, they do what they are told.

And, over the years, they have been told to eliminate letter grades and percentages, as well as to include “effort” when they decide on grades. Now, they are also being told to ignore when work is not handed in or when classes are missed. Consequently, students are usually not marked on what they actually know.

The effects of these policies?  Entitlement expectations and inflated grades have also become a serious problem at the college and university levels because departments and institutions are all competing for the same students.

As a result, as the Ivory Tower Blues blog reports, it is every department and every institution for itself. With e-mail, cell phones and the Internet, word gets out to potential students as to where the “best” universities are in terms of getting the highest grades.

Why is that so important? Because, interestingly, many employers are insisting on seeing official copies of college or university transcripts, looking for potential employees on the basis of high marks.

So, where do we go from here when the politics of no-fail and social promotion have obviously affected just about everyone in society? One place we could start would be to incorporate traditional methods with the progressive views that are so prevalent out there, such as an emphasis on academic standards and expectations that include natural consequences. Because going all one way has clearly not worked.

Endnote: Here is a link to my archive on the “no-fail” policy.

8 thoughts on “The politics of school “no-fail” policies

  1. When my oldest was in grade 5 I was really struggling with him and his attitude. During the year I attended a parent/teacher interview and was told that if his attitude didn’t change he would be a drop out by grade 9.

    It’s a long story as to how we got there but at that point I was out of ideas on how to inspire and/or punish to change the behaviour so at this interview (2 months left in the school year) I asked what the school policy was regarding pass/fail and was told “no one fails”. I then said that if I didn’t feel my child was ready to go to grade 6 I would do everything I could to ensure he suffered the consequences of his actions. That’s when I received the tongue lashing. How could I actually set out to destroy my child’s self esteem? How could I, as a parent, want to see my child fail? How could I be so cruel?

    I got through to my child, finally! He made a very good effort in the last 2 months and only failed one subject and is now about to pass grade 9 with good marks. He tells me that he is happier now because he knows he CAN do the work and he is not stupid as he felt back then.

    I think some schools are too quick to label kids with special needs. I get frustrated when they give out “stars of the week” in a way to ensure every kid gets recognized. And failing a grade because you didn’t pass should provide both the kid and parent with a wake up call. Everything should be merit based.


  2. Great post.
    I have been telling people for yrs that what we get out of our education system now is half wits and socialists.
    An entire industry has sprung up to teach people using the old system of learning to read and to understand math concepts because they(government) have replaced intelligent problem solving with memorizing nonsense with no underlying understanding.
    semi-Illiterate and unable to solve problems is no way to go through life but that is exactly what many grads are doing.
    We had one of the best education systems in the World pre Trudeau’s socialist experiment.
    Like most problems in Canada it all goes back to Trudeau’s experiment with a failed system of government, his fascination with Communist regimes and their system of citizen control through propaganda and the dumbing down of the citizen.
    The AGW scam would never have got off the ground in 1967, but today grade school science is seemingly beyond most Canadian adults to understand. Sad.
    PS. don’t blame the teachers? They are the front lines and will fight for wages but not an actual curriculum that would benefit the kids and the whole country! Wrong. I do blame them, the Same as I blame cops for enforcing stupid unconstitutional laws, they too only stand up when it is personal.
    Cowards and useful idiots.


  3. Durward — You are wrong about most teachers. If I felt they could do something I would be the first to say so. It is their unions who go for the pay and perks. The reality is that teachers are essentially bureaucrats. They are provided with documents and policies and told to implement them. If they buck the system, they are shunned.

    No, change or reform has to come from without the system because that is all the politicians respond to — votes. Note the teacher who tried to get other teachers to sign a petition stopping the no-fail course credit system. Also, go to and you will see what I mean — teachers having to retire before they can speak out. T’was always thus. Been there and done that so to speak.

    Scroll down some of my posts as well as see the kind of criticism I get for daring to speak the truth. I am even told what I write destroys all my credibility. And, teachers in the system have even less chance to do so. They are not cowards and useful idiots. They do their damnest and yet are continually: (1) intimidated into silence by their unions, and (2) blamed by the public like you for what the politicians should be doing. Blame Premier Dalton McGuinty. The buck should start and stop there.


  4. The federations, especially OSSTF has fought ferociously against so-called no-fail policies. In fact most of the backing up the government has done on this is due to OSSTF opposition. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society, the teachers union of Manitoba took out a poll which showed most Manitobans oppose no fail.

    Everybody wants more kids to pass but not by lowering the bar.


  5. Where in the Niagara Falls Review does John Robbins mention the process of “transferring” students to the next grade? I couldn’t find it. I don’t think many people are aware of this “transfer” option that some boards use. That’s why I pointed it out on MendEd and The Education Reporter.


  6. Urbanteach — I couldn’t find where he wrote that either. Likely what happened is that when Robbins was interviewing me by telephone he must have mentioned that when we were talking.

    The other thing I am looking for and maybe you can point me to the source is that when Kathleen Wynn was Ontario Education Minister, she sent out a memo to all the public boards making it clear that they had to meet “benchmarks” in order to continue getting their grants — and one of those benchmarks was that only a certain number of retainers would be tolerated. In other words, the McGuinty government is interested only in positive “statistics,” not actually how best to help students in the long run.


  7. Regular visitors will notice that I have had to move from Netfirms — who were hosting my blog — to I had to do that because, while their 24/7 support was great, the server was so slow I couldn’t get anything done. As a result, I no longer have access to the “CoffeeDesk” theme/template. However, I have used a photo of that themes desktop.


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