My son did something last month that is apparently unacceptable among driven and high striving high school juniors these days: He failed.
More specifically, he failed the trigonometry Regents by three points – after taking three Advanced Placement exams, six finals, three SAT sittings (one of them unplanned after a testing debacle) and at least four other Regents.
My reaction has surprised me. I'm relieved.
As the recent cheating scandal involving 71 students at high pressure Stuyvesant High unfolds, I'm a lot less concerned about one isolated failure than I am about a "whatever-it-takes to succeed,'' mentality among teenagers bent on success.
"There is too much weight put on a couple of numbers to determine your worth as a student and a human being," a recent Stuyvesant graduate told The New York Times.
I couldn't agree more. Failing one exam is a whole lot better than cheating-- and facing suspension or even expulsion.
But never mind the punishment – what about the crime?
Is it possible that so many striving high school students (more than 28,000 students take the specialized exam, many vying for just 935 seats at Stuyvesant) have convinced themselves that it's okay to cheat?
My son doesn't attend Stuyvesant, but if someone at his high school had managed to text him the correct trig answers via cell phone, wouldn't he be tempted to pencil them in?
I hope not, but it was, after all, his last exam for the year, after two solid months of mind-numbing test taking. He did well in the course but failed the trig Regents, he told me, because he was exhausted -- from finals, SATs, the prom, school performances and a string of other exams.
At 16, he had run out of steam.
"It was also really hard,'' he told me, pointing out that lots of his classmates also failed, and that there was even a Facebook page for students in the same boat who can re-take the test in January.
This was not, I realized, the moment for a lecture on how impossible it is to get into a top college these days. I've been writing about education for years, at one point focusing on college admissions. Every year seems the hardest ever to get into top schools. I'm still able to rattle off scary statistics about how many valedictorians Harvard rejected, even though the high school graduation gap in the U.S. and how far we are falling behind other countries when it comes to getting college students to graduate is far more important.
I can't help wondering how complicit parents and educators are in the most recent cheating scandal. Specifically, I'm wondering if parents are ignoring – or perhaps incapable – of internalizing the message that it's okay to let your kids fail?
"The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure," Dominic Randolph, headmaster at Riverdale Country School, told The New York Times in a memorable piece by Paul Tough, the author of a new book on the topic. "And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything."
So how do we find a balance?