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Does Failure Really “Start To Become Irreversible” At Age Ten?


Newsweek, which doesn’t have a great track record showing good judgment in education issues (see Did You Know That THE Key To Saving American Education Is Firing Bad Teachers?), has now published a guide on How to Close the Achievement Gap.

It highlights some good ideas, like increasing quality pre-school education and learning from the Finland school system.

I’m less than thrilled, however, with its lifting-up KIPP charter schools as a model we should try to emulate, without recognizing the issue of “creaming” (see Charter Schools and “Creaming” and Insightful Critique Of KIPP Schools).

I also had some questions about their praise of Singapore’s school system and how they trains and treat their teachers, just because I don’t know anything about how they do it. If readers have some more knowledge about it, please share it in the comments section.

One statement in the article, though, bothered me more than any other — it claims that ten is “the age at which failure starts to become irreversible” (though it doesn’t cite any source for that claim — again, if readers have some knowledge I hope they’ll share it in the comments section).

I wrote about my feelings related to this topic in a previous post titled Believing That Every Student Can Succeed Academically. Here is one portion of that post:

Many of the students at our inner-city high school have huge challenges — not having a home situation that can provide many educational enrichment activities; lack of health insurance; unstable family life; self-control issues; gangs; English as their second language, etc.

But, though they might have a long list of deficits, they also have many assets — their potential; their life experiences; their resiliency.

And here’s another excerpt:

I agree with Richard Rothstein, who writes that we can only narrow, not bridge, the achievement gap without public policies that will impact the problems outside the schoolhouse doors that affect student learning. And there are some days when I come home feeling emotionally-drained and wonder what it might be like teaching at a suburban school. And there are students who — for one reason or another — I am not able to reach during an entire school year, and have hopes that some other teacher will down the line.

But those days and disappointments are more than off-set by the successes I see — the students who had never read a book before and now are doing so regularly; the ones who are able to develop their own capacity for self-control and discipline; the boys and girls (and young men and young women) who go on to college after telling me in ninth-grade that they don’t need to work on their writing because they would never need it as a professional skateboarder or professional basketball player.

Does failure really “start to become irreversible” at age ten?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. See Obama’s speech on Education Reform:
    Praises some charter schools

  2. I’m amazed at how comfortable some people are with labeling children as failures (Maria and I both had the same idea on our minds the last couple of nights)! As though brains come with an expiration date: “Reach grade level by mm/dd/yyyy”

    I’ve seen research (exact citations are escaping me right now, sorry!) about the statistical likelihood of a student being able to overcome the gap between their current skills and a given grade-level benchmark, but of course, those are referring to performance on tests. If kids were actually given the support they need to learn, without all the pressure and hysteria that comes with being identified as being below grade-level these days, we might be amazed at what they can do.

    A former professor of mine has a friend, a fellow PhD, who actually didn’t start reading until she was 13… Obviously not ideal, but it goes to show that being behind doesn’t *have* to be the end of the world!

  3. I have never heard that kids have a ‘failure line’ in regards to their age. What a scary thought! What scares me about this statement is that professionals adhere to this nonsense and will uphold it as true thus labeling and holding back the very thing these children need: belief!

  4. I just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” where he talks about KIPP schools. I was telling my husband about it and explained the typical day of a KIPP student which was getting up around 6am to go to school and getting home around 7pm and doing 3 – 4 hours of homework. My husband replied, “So it’s a high school” and I said, “No, it’s an elementary school.” Gladwell discusses how these are similar hours to a premed student. I’m sure in some instances this rigorous of a schedule is beneficial but sounds to me like a bit much. I haven’t worked at a charter school and I’m sure some are good and some are bad but none are a “one size fits all model” I’m sure.

  5. Larry,

    Great links (as usual)!

    My initial thought it to stick with my feeling that “students don’t fail” and that failure is a cultural / institutional thing and not something a person does. I really think there is truth there BUT…
    my deep gut tells me that the early years where our identity solidifies and gels are so important and we DO create failures out of children.

    The communists had a saying, “get them young”. It is still true today but works for good or bad. I believe the main reason students grow up to not learn in a constructive, whole and organic fashion (meaning, everyone is always learning, it is just the HOW that is important – is it computer games or is it self improvement?), the main reason — is our competitive and ranking school system. 8-10 hours a day, day in and day out, can make a failure of any student when they are constantly judged, ranked, measured against and marked. This system and one where we have “fractured” learning environments (kids should stay in their classrooms with the same students/teachers) are the biggest contributors to “failure”.

    I do think that failure can be reversed, but it gets harder. Just like learning a language gets harder as we age…. I want to deny that but just can’t.

    I just wrote on my blog about the power of praise. We need more of this in our school environments. It is one way to sweeten our so bitter school system.


  6. As a reading instructor at a community college, I can tell you that “failure” is not irreversible. I see students every day who could have been labeled as “failures” at many points in their lives who are able to turn their academic lives around and become very successful.

  7. “Age 10” happens to be about the time that the effects of inadvertent mis-istruction of kids in reading are recognized by teachers and parents. By this time the student likely has picked up maladaptive psychological and behavioral patterns as well as faulty reading techniques. Moreover, instructional tasks are becoming more complex and assuming foundational capability that the student wasn’t taught.

    The evidence is that kids who are “behind” stay behind. Some are slapped with a “specific learning disability” and others limp along though life as “dyslexic.”

    The dirty secret is that the “best” remedial reading programs at grade 3 and 5 “don’t work. The sadder news is that kids who did not get the remedial instruction were worse at the end of the year. The study was touted at the time as the “biggest and best educational experiment ever conducted” and was funded by the feds and by several prominent foundations. As it happened, the results were buried

    Ir’s never too late to learn. But there are “sensitive periods” both in child development and in the structure of schooling. If a child hasn’t been taught how to read by age 7, the clock is ticking, and by age 10, an alarm is sounding.

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