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Jay* was a typical 3rd grader in every respect but one. He was last in his class in math. He knew it, the teacher knew it, and the rest of his classmates knew it. His advancement from 3rd grade to 4th grade was in danger. I was called in to tutor him for 45 minutes twice a week in hopes that his skills could be improved enough to allow him to advance with the rest of his classmates.

You see, Jay was raised in a family where expectations were low. The older kids in the family didn’t succeed in school either and there were various excuses as to why no one in the family did well. So Jay, without being told in so many words, had this same expectation. But there was something different this time. Jay had a tutor that didn’t buy any of those excuses. I listened quietly as he would tell me “I’m just not very good at math.” I didn’t agree or disagree. I just probed until I found out that there were a couple of math concepts that he grasped and we built on them. As a result his confidence started to grow with every visit.

Within a month Jay was flying. Within two months he achieved the second highest placement score in his class and his teacher was in awe. She thought I was some kind of miracle worker. I wish I could claim the credit, but it really was as simple as telling him that I believed he could do a little bit better. Not a lot better, just a little better. And then a little better the next time. And I made it clear that if we reached a place where he couldn’t get a little better, that would be OK. But until then, I said, lets see how far you can go. And away he went.

We underestimate our kids. The philosophy of “fairness” is cheating them of their potential. There is nothing wrong with failing but there is something wrong with not trying. Or even worse, holding kids back so as not to offend the other kids. I was dismayed to read that the concept of teaching to the lowest denominator has stooped to this level, not surprisingly, in Massachusetts.

David Fabrizio, principal of Ipswich Middle School, notified parents of his plan to eliminate the school’s Honors Night last week.

“The Honors Night, which can be a great sense of pride for the recipients’ families, can also be devastating to a child who has worked extremely hard in a difficult class but who, despite growth, has not been able to maintain a high grade point average,” Fabrizio penned in his first letter to parents.

Fabrizio also said he decided to make the change because academic success can be influenced by the amount of support a student receives at home and not all students receive the same level of emotional and academic support at home.

Essentially what this philosophy represents is teaching to the lowest denominator so that no one feels bad. In the case of my young student Jay, this principal would prefer to hold everyone back to the level where Jay struggled at as opposed to bringing Jay up to the level of the best students. This is a twisted philosophy that dumbs down our whole population and sets kids up for later failure when they find out this is not how things work in the real world.

The way it works in the real world was best described by Philadelphia Eagles football Coach Chip Kelly this week when asked about the philosophy he uses to teach his players his football system.

“You teach the fastest learner, and everyone else has to catch up. …Those guys don’t have time to teach the other guys. Everybody’s moving. That’s the coach’s job.”

The guy who took a bunch good players, few with a future in the NFL, used this philosophy to turn the football world upside down with innovation and execution. It’s the teachers and parents job to challenge the student to push forward, and then to be there to bring them along. It really saddens me to realize how many people never challenge themselves because they have been taught to fear failure. Taught that failure is bad. That failure damages self esteem. Baloney. Failure builds the foundation that allows you to dust yourself off, learn from it, and go on to greater things. I could list pages of people, including myself, who only found success after experiencing failure.

The idea that we can’t expect much from kids who don’t have a perfect home or a low family income is equally hogwash. Take the case of Dr. Ben Carson. Considered by many the worlds leading pediatric brain surgeon. He executed the first successful surgery to separate Siamese twins connected at the brain.

Dr. Carson said he had a nickname in grade school; Dummy. Everyone knew he was dumb and he just assumed that it was true. His mom was a single parent who refused to accept food stamps and welfare. She held down multiple jobs to make ends meet. Mom says she noticed one day that the wealthy people whose homes she cleaned read a lot and watched very little Television. So she decided if it was good for them it would be good for her boys. She unplugged the TV and told them they had to read a book a week and write a report for her. What she didn’t tell them was that she herself was illiterate. She couldn’t read the reports they wrote. But she marked up their papers anyway. Dr. Carson says that within a year and a half he was at the top of his class.

It is rather fortunate for Ben Carson that he had a Mom who refused to accept the belief that her son’s were dumb. It is even more fortunate that he didn’t attend principal David Fabrizio’s middle school. How ironic that the world is a better place for thousands of sick children because an illiterate mom had more faith in her kid then a college educated principal has in his.

Are you challenging your kids? Are you challenging yourself? Why or why not? Have a similar story? Leave a comment below.

*Not his real name