The High School Failures by Francis P. Obrien


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Page 3

It is estimated that the public high schools had 84 per cent of all the
pupils (above 1,500,000) enrolled in the secondary schools of the
United States in 1916.[1] The majority of these pupils are lost from
school--whatever the cause--before the completion of their courses;
and, again, the majority of those who do graduate have on graduation
ended their school days. Consequently, it becomes more and more evident
how momentous is the influence of the public high school in
conditioning the life activities and opportunities of our youthful
citizens who have entered its doors. Before being entitled to be
considered a "big business enterprise,"[2] it seems imperative that our
"American High School" must rapidly come to utilize more of business
methods of accounting and of efficiency, so as to recognize the
tremendous waste product of our educational machinery.

The aim of this study is to trace as carefully and completely as may be
the facts relative to that major portion of our high school population,
the pupils who fail in their school subjects, and to note something of
the significance of these findings. If we are to proceed wisely in
reference to the failing pupils in the high school, it is admittedly of
importance that such procedure should be based on a definite knowledge
of the facts. The value of such a study will in turn be conditioned by
the scrupulous care and scientific accuracy in the securing and
handling of the facts. It is believed that the causes of and the
remedies for failure are necessarily closely linked with factors found
in the school and with the school experiences of failing pupils, so
that the problem cannot be solved by merely labeling such pupils as the
unfit. There is no attempt in this study to treat all failures as in
any single category. The causes of the failures are not assumed at the
start nor given the place of chief emphasis, but are regarded as
incidental to and dependent upon what the evidence itself discloses.
The success of the failing pupils after they leave the high school is
not included in this undertaking, but is itself a field worthy of
extended study. Even our knowledge of what later happens to the more
successful and the graduating high school pupils is limited mainly to
those who go on to college or to other higher institutions. One of the
more familiar attempts to evaluate the later influence of the high
school illustrates the fallacy of overlooking the process of selection
involved, and of treating its influence in conjunction with the
training as though it were the result of school training alone.[3]


The term 'failure' is employed in this study to signify the non-passing
of a pupil in any semester-subject of his school work. The school
decision is not questioned in the matter of a recorded failure. And
although it is usually understood to negate "ability plus
accomplishment," it may, and undoubtedly does, at times imply other
meanings, such as a punitive mark, a teacher's prejudice, or a deferred
judgment. The mark may at times tell more about the teacher who gave it
than about the pupil who received it. These peculiarities of the
individual teacher or pupil are pretty well compensated for by the
large number of teachers and of pupils involved. The decisive factor in
this matter is that the school refuses to grant credit for the work
pursued. The failure for a semester seems to be a more adaptable unit
in this connection than the subject-failure for a year. However, it
necessitates the treatment of the subject-failure for a year as
equivalent to a failure for each of the two semesters. Two of the
schools involved in this study (comprising about 11 per cent of the
pupils) recorded grades only at the end of the year. It is quite
probable that the marking by semesters would actually have increased
the number of failures in these schools, as there are many teachers who
confess that they are less willing to make a pupil repeat a year than a

By employing this unit of failure, the failures in the different
subjects are regarded as comparable. Since only the academic and
commercial subjects are considered, and since they are almost uniformly
scheduled for four or five hours a week, the failures will seem to be
of something near equal gravity and to represent a similar amount of
non-performance or of unsatisfactory results. There were also a few
failures included here for those subjects which had only three hours a
week credit, mainly in the commercial subjects. But failures were
unnoted when the subject was listed for less than three hours a week.

There are certain other elements of assumption in the treatment of the
failures, which seemed to be unavoidable. They are, first, that failure
in any subject is the same fact for boys and for girls; second, that
failures in different years of work or with different teachers are
equivalent; third, that failures in elective and in required subjects
are of the same gravity. It was found practically impossible to
differentiate required and elective subjects, however desirable it
would have been, for the subjects that are theoretically elective often
are in fact virtually required, the electives of one course are
required in another, and on many of the records consulted neither the
courses nor the electives are clearly designated.

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