Believing in Each and Every Student: Applying the Lessons of No-Fail Grading in the Public Schools to Independent Music Instruction

By Jacobi, Bonnie S. | American Music Teacher, June-July 2013 | Go to article overview

Believing in Each and Every Student: Applying the Lessons of No-Fail Grading in the Public Schools to Independent Music Instruction


Jacobi, Bonnie S., American Music Teacher


Among the many differences between public school education and independent music instruction, there are occasionally lessons from one setting that can inform and benefit the other. "No-fail" grading is one such example of an approach that can inspire, inform and challenge us to become stronger independent teachers and, perhaps, even better individuals. We are inevitably faced with a student who we are not certain has "what it takes" to make progress or to be successful at the instrument. When various strategies are tried and do not work, we recommend the child discontinue lessons. I tend to call this "taking a break," although experience has taught me that taking a break often becomes synonymous with quitting the instrument.

As independent music teachers, we have a unique ability to determine when we begin or cease working with a student. This sharply distinguishes our work from public school educators. The contrast became clear to me when I was teaching at a K-12 school and my principal informed me the school had adopted a "no-fail" system as part of its philosophy. Having never heard this phrase, I asked her what the no-fail system entailed. She replied that it involves exactly what is stated--no student in the school will be allowed to fail anything. We will keep teaching them until they pass, even if it means trying alternative techniques or having them repeat a course or entire grade level. In my four-year tenure at the school, I saw many different ways in which the teachers, staff and administration made this system a reality. No students at the school failed; each and every one experienced success. They did not graduate until they became successful. This philosophy challenged me to think of my work with students in a new way.

American schools first began implementing no-fail systems during the early 1970s to raise achievement among underperforming students and improve retention among students at low-income schools. Certain schools still employ a "ZAP" policy (Zeros Aren't Permitted) in which students are given the opportunity to complete homework that is not turned in on time. (1) One school in Plymouth, Minnesota, requires the work to be submitted by the next school day or else the student's name is placed on a ZAP 2 list. Delinquent work after this point must be completed during the student's lunch period. Another school with a ZAP program in Norman, Oklahoma, provides students two days to turn in late work before receiving a zero.

Instead of earning an "F" as a report card grade, students in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, school system receive an "H" for "held" on their report card. This gives students an opportunity to improve their performance in the class without suffering a punitive consequence. (2) No-fail systems enable students to succeed whom otherwise would not, while also improving the culture of the school.

Although grading is not typically a component of independent music instruction, there are principles that can be learned from this approach. Public school educators are in a position to welcome, accommodate and see every child through to the end of the educational goal. With a no-fail system in place, the student knows from the very beginning that failure is not an option because the teacher is permanently committed to his or her success. Success will be achieved at one point or another, in one way or another; it is inevitable.

In her book Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School, Kathleen Cleveland compares each child to a mosaic "created from the many 'pieces' of how he is, how he learns, and what he needs in order to succeed in [education]." (3) As teachers, we need to identify then assemble the pieces of the mosaic--for each child. I think back to my own music study as a youth and wonder how many of my teachers experienced a time when they became frustrated with my ability to progress at the rate they anticipated or when they questioned my commitment to music because I was also a serious dance student. …

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