Are Your Students “Waiting to Fail”?

Imagine a teacher being unable to offer official remedial assistance to a student who’s obviously desperately struggling to read simply because the student wasn’t completely failing yet. This might seem almost as ridiculous as a fireman being denied water until flames reach five feet or a plumber being refused new pipes until the old ones flood a house – waiting until the worst case scenario occurs to intervene and help is obviously absurd. However, thousands of teachers actually experienced this dynamic in the 1970s. They weren’t permitted to provide formal tutoring, after-school programs, or simpler replacement books until their pupils flunked out of reading classes.

This was called the “wait to fail” model. While it’s fortunately now long-defunct in reading, this flawed perspective is alive and well in career counseling. Read on to learn more about the “wait to fail” system, how it affects vocational advising, and how the opposite, “prepare to succeed” approach can help reverse its harmful effects.

“Wait to Fail” in Reading

How in the world is it possible that teachers ended up barred from officially assisting low-performing students? According to a report from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), “the U.S. Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act” in 1975. Soon after, policymakers began seeing some troubling trends. Most notably, they found that “the number of students identified with learning disabilities grew much more quickly and reached much higher levels than expected.”

Why? They wondered. It wasn’t as if learning disabilities had suddenly become more prevalent. No, this alarming trend appeared to be the direct result of the law passed in 1975: “under [new] special education laws, students had to show a deficit (such as mental retardation or a specific learning disability) to qualify for specialized instruction.” While the law was likely intended to help students with disabilities access the aid they needed to succeed, the actual result ended up restricting access for students who weren’t necessarily disabled but did really need help. Thus, a student had to “wait to fail” and in that way demonstrate a “disability” in order to get official remedial assistance.

It doesn’t take advanced pedagogical knowledge to comprehend why this system was completely ineffective.

Delayed Intervention in Career Counseling

While there isn’t a systematic, codified “wait to fail” procedure in vocational advising, observing college students’ behaviors suggests that they are, in fact, postponing seeking support until they’ve proven themselves completely unsuccessful. Many pupils disregard important career counseling opportunities until they’re faced with the very real prospect that they might not be able to earn the degree they’d intended, graduate on time, or obtain the sort of job they’d imagined.

College students tend to only seek out vocational advising when they are weeks or months away from needing to find a full-time job (as upperclassmen). In a survey on graduate students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, college students tend to only seek out vocational advising when they are weeks or months away from needing to find a full-time job (as upperclassmen). The students’ responses on the study line up with this thinking – the top explanation students gave for not using career services was “No need to yet (I am not ready to utilize their services).” Nearly half (46%) of the students who provided this reason were freshmen, while another 34% were sophomores.

Rather than a faulty law, it seems that college students’ “wait to fail” mentality comes from their own flawed perspectives on what career services centers actually do and how they should approach planning for their careers. Of course, students don’t need to be “ready” to start planning for their futures – they simply need to show up to career services. The great irony of the situation is that, in all likelihood, the students who steer clear of career counseling because they don’t feel “prepared” are the ones who’d be most likely to benefit from it. Virtually any career counselor would tell you that a key component to finding success is mapping out students’ academic and vocational goals well in advance of graduation.

College students’ mindsets about career services have a noticeable, tangible impact on how these offices function. Inside Higher Ed portrays the dismal scene of a “traditional model” for college counseling, in which “half-a-dozen— or maybe a dozen, if it’s a big university—overbooked counselors sit in an office and advise students who waited until their senior year to think about how they’re going to get a job.” Career counselors, of course, do their best to help distressed seniors, but this late rushed assistance will never be as effective as early intervention, the way vocational advising is supposed to be. This “wait to fail” dynamic is as untenable as reading education was in the 1970s.

Why We Must Prepare Students to Succeed

So, you might find yourself wondering, whatever happened to the “wait to fail” model of reading instruction? The tale of that ill-fated educational approach does have a happy ending.

Once policymakers got wind of the downfalls of their new law, they worked to change it. Ultimately, they replaced it with RTI, or “response to intervention,” a program that “enables schools to identify the kinds of support struggling students need–and provide that support when it’s needed.” Rather than providing assistance only to students with learning disabilities, this method focuses on identifying students who need help as early as possible and swiftly providing them with additional assistance in reading.

In essence, RTI replaces a “wait to fail” viewpoint with a “prepare to succeed” mindset. The same should be put in place for career counseling. Of course, shifting students’ perspectives and career centers’ strategies may be a bit more difficult than simply eliminating an erroneous law, but it can certainly be done, and it must.

In career counseling, a “prepare to succeed” approach could entail, to start:

  • Regular, perhaps even mandatory, meetings with students from freshman year onward to chart clear academic and vocational pathways
  • A campus culture that advocates for a proactive, preventive approach to career counseling
  • Instruments to help students better define, understand, research, and pursue their interests
  • Tools to aid students in adjusting their study styles and optimizing their characteristics—starting with the matriculation process

And much more. This new version of career counseling would certainly be more effective than allowing students to delay aid until the need is dire. In addition to solving “wait to fail” problems, a “prepare to succeed” perspective would galvanize students who might have otherwise achieved some success to accomplish even greater goals and enjoy even happier lives as a result. Download our white paper Are Your Students “Waiting to Fail”? to learn more about how you can help your students succeed earlier, faster, and more effectively.

Are Your Students “Waiting to Fail”?

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