Prevention of academic failure is a serious challenge because children who fail academically experience significant social and economic challenges throughout their lives. Causes of academic failure include familial, socioeconomic, and cultural issues that lead to a lack of readiness for school, academic, instructional, and motivational problems as well as physiological, cognitive, and neurological barriers to learning.
Attempts to help students who are experiencing academic failure fall into three categories: prevention, intervention, and remediation. Preventive approaches aim to stop academic failure before it occurs. Early intervention programs aim to catch children during key developmental periods and facilitate development and readiness skills.
Remediation programs are usually applied when students have demonstrated significant skill deficits and are experiencing significant academic failure. Special education programs often take this form, as do other kinds of academic accommodations for students identified with special needs.
A lot depends on children’s success in school—their self-esteem, their sense of identity, their future employability. Preventing academic failure means that we, as a society, are much more likely to produce individuals who feel confident about their ability to contribute to the common good, whose literacy skills are competent, and who are able to hold jobs successfully. Thus, prevention of academic failure should be a primary concern for any society. But exactly what is meant by academic failure?
What does the term connote? Generations of schoolchildren since the 1920s, when the system of grade progression began, have equated academic failure with retention in grade. School failure meant literally failing to progress onto the next grade, with the assumption that the skills and knowledge taught in that grade had not been mastered. To have flunked multiple grades quickly led to quilting school altogether—the ultimate academic failure.
More recently, academic failure has come to mean a failure to acquire the basic skills of literacy. Students who were unable to read at a functional level, to communicate effectively through writing, and to complete basic math calculations were seen as representing a failure of the academic system even though they might hold high school diplomas.
The practice of moving students on from one grade to the next even though they might not have mastered basic competencies associated with lower grade levels is often referred to as social promotion. This type of academic failure led to calls for an increased emphasis on basic skills, that is, the “three R’s”—reading, (w)riting, and arithmetic—in public education. Partly in reaction to emphasis on basic skills, a third interpretation of academic failure has also emerged.
In this view, academic failure occurs not only when students fail to master basic skills but also when they emerge from school without the ability to think critically, problem solve, learn independently, and work collaboratively with others—a skill set deemed necessary for success in a digital age. This underachievement symbolizes a significant loss of intellectual capital for a culture.
Finally, statistics show that students who do not complete high school are much more likely to need welfare support, have difficulties with the law and police, and struggle economically and socially throughout their lives. Thus, academic failure ultimately means both the failure to acquire the skill sets expected to be learned and the failure to acquire official documentation of achievement by the school system.