If Johnny can't read but he tries really hard, he CAN'T READ. Promotion or posturing that his effort is commendable ignores the result, he CAN'T READ. If anyone suggested that Phil Mickelson should get the same trophy and prize money as Tiger just because, despite coming in second, he tried really hard, they would be laughed off the course. How much more damaging is it to a child in the second grade that has mastered reading to find themselves promoted to third grade with someone else that[sic] can not read. What are we teaching them? Don't try so hard...promotion will happen anyway.Now, I've run into this problem before as a math teacher... people who took calculus in high school who would have been better served with making sure they understood algebra first. But they've been pushed ahead of their core competency because it doesn't look good to make the "better" students have to take the same course over again (not that it would help, if the reason they didn't do well the first time was the teacher was incompetent.) Of course, reality catches up with everybody sometime, and if you need to do something that relies on having that knowledge (say, getting an engineering degree) those students will fail horribly. And they won't necessarily know why -- they got good grades in high school, they always did well on their math tests there, it must be those mean college profs[grad students] who just don't know how to teach who are holding you back.
But the biggest problem seems to be that students will compare themselves to the people they know, because they have no global reference for their abilities until it's too late (aka the SAT or AP tests.) The saddest illustration I saw of this was when I was in a DC metro math competition -- of course suburban MD and VA public schools were there, and I guess they thought it would be unfair to exclude DC public schools... which is true, but not for the reason they were thinking. The DC public schools were represented by their best math students, who were years behind us in knowledge. At best, some of them got one question right and most got none correct. I felt sorry for the kids, remembering how it was likely I'd be back at that level if I were still back in Savannah, Ga. But later I thought this might be an important lesson for these students: you might be the best in your particular schools, but your schools are nowhere near the top; this might be demoralizing, but it might also help the ambitious to realize that they're not being challenged enough. I knew there was much farther beyond what I was getting in school in general, so I never depended on school for my entire education.
It goes beyond the freedom to fail, but also to the duty for teachers to let students know they aren't measuring up, but it goes beyond formal teachers. This latest Kennedy screw-up is a case in point: Patrick Kennedy has had way too many do-overs in his life due to his family connections. Most other people would have gotten their asses kicked hard for some of the crap he's done over the years, not spending their days as a legislator since age 21. And the people giving him a pass are doing him no favors, as excusing his repeated bad behavior makes it less and less likely he will make the changes that will keep him from an early grave. These people might think they're being helpful, but they're just setting him up to destroy himself in a worse manner.