Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Social-Promotion Policy Fails Students

In a school system with inadequate curricula, a dependence on constructivist teaching and insufficient focus on academics – some children won’t pick up the concepts before the end of the year. They’ll flunk the tests, they won’t complete their schoolwork, maybe they won’t learn how to multiply or divide – whatever it is – they won’t be ready for the next grade.

They’re probably going there anyway.

Many school districts have policies that students can’t be held back. In Spokane Public Schools, Procedure 4425, written in 1988, says, “No student shall be retained more than once during K-8 grades except in special cases” (“Policies,” 1988). The Procedure says it’s because “research demonstrates that retention does not help students who do not succeed because they have low potential; have social, emotional, or behavioral problems; or lack motivation.” The actual research is not cited.

I’ll cite a research report, then. A 2006 study (Greene & Winter, 2006) assessed the effects of a “test-based promotion policy.” The study found that two years after Florida students had been retained, they had “made significant reading gains relative to the control group of socially promoted students.” The socially promoted students, meanwhile, continued to fall farther behind.

In a January 2007 meeting, I asked (then Spokane Superintendent) Brian Benzel about the district’s policy. He said, “The research around retention shows a very negative correlation between retention and subsequent difficulties.” I asked him in what way, and he said: “It usually makes the learning problems worse rather than better. And so our practice is to differentiate instruction and to be, and to work with, we know that students come in all different sizes, shapes, and degrees of readiness to learn. The old system, if you will, kind of said, ‘We’re going to give you 6 hours a day for 180 days, for 12 ½ years, and we’re going to let the outcome vary. We’ll hold all the time constant, we’ll have managed inputs, and whatever happens, happens.’ In a world where we had Kaiser and farms and mining and timber, that worked fine. But now, as we move to more technology and knowledge, and information management, that isn’t working so well, so we’re in the midst of a big shift from holding our inputs constant to looking at the results being what we want to be constant, or, and we know that a student who starts out here compared to one who starts out here are going to need different things.”

It went on like that. He didn’t cite the actual research.

Being held back probably isn’t good for a child’s self-esteem at that moment, but that doesn’t mean the better thing to do is socially promote the child. Failing at something is a normal, natural part of life. It doesn’t feel good at the time, but it can be instructive – to the student, the family and the school’s accountability system.

I’m not advocating that schools hold back every child who doesn’t meet a standard. I’m pointing out a truth: If students don’t have the skills for the next grade, then some sort of intervention must take place. Procedure 4425 only makes sense if struggling students have a tutor and/or mandatory remedial work so they can get caught up before the next grade. (And this work should probably come with a different approach than it did the first time.)

For most students, there are no tutors. No spring or summer remedial work. Unless parents or teachers make a special effort to find out what’s missing and to get that information into the child’s head, the child is passed to the next grade without the skills needed to be successful there.

Robert Archer, a high-school teacher, said he’s frustrated that students are coming to his class unprepared:

“… many of my ninth-grade students … are thoroughly unprepared for high school in terms of both skills proficiency and work ethic. … What exactly is going on in grades 1-8 in the Spokane Public Schools? If the students are so lacking in basic academic and work skills, how are they even making it to ninth grade?” (2008).

Those students make it to ninth grade in that condition because they weren’t failed and they weren’t sufficiently helped.

I don’t want students to feel badly or stand out because they’re taller and older than everyone else. But things are what they are. How good can it be for their self-esteem to struggle all year and then be promoted to the next grade where they’ll continue to struggle and where the gap in skills is even wider? Do you suppose they’ll eventually get the idea that no one’s ever going to fail them, that maybe they don’t ever have to learn, that maybe there aren’t any real consequences for not trying?

“What are they going to do about it? Fail me? They can’t fail me,” one 4th-grader said to me. What that 4th grader doesn’t realize is that the district is failing him – not in the legitimate, honest way he’s imagining, but in a dishonest, illegitimate way, by passing him through and then blaming him for failing to learn, which it will continue to do until he either graduates or drops out, in either case totally unprepared for the workforce. Meanwhile, teachers wind up with evermore challenging classrooms that are stuffed with 28-30 students of widely varying degrees of ability. As everyone laments the situation, many of the students sadly (and falsely) come to believe they’re incapable of learning. How can such a policy possibly be about self-esteem?

(Pass them through, mind you, and the district doesn’t have to pay to educate them twice.)

Don’t you feel angry when you think about how the children are passed through, like so many defective toys, while the plant managers stand around, nodding their heads, saying how wonderful the production lines are, refusing to pluck any toys off, passing out plaques, winning awards and congratulating each other? The toys get to the end of the line, and there they are – not ready for the marketplace. Doesn’t it make you angry?

If I were a teacher, I’d be angry as I surveyed my students, knowing that half of them don’t have the skills to do the work I’m about to assign. I’d be angry knowing I might get into trouble for telling parents how it is. I’d be angry knowing administrators called it a sign of progress that last year’s WASL pass rate stood at 60% or less and that many of them say nothing at all is wrong. I’m not a teacher, but I’m angry. Doing my research, I spent more than a year angry. Then, I turned that anger into resolve.

I resolve to no longer accept the things that don’t make sense. I resolve to speak up, to advocate for change, to vote with my feet. I resolve to either make the public-school system work for my child – or find a different program that will. I resolve that – regardless of what happens in public school – my child will always be ready for the next grade. She will also become ready for postsecondary life, whatever she wants that to look like.

I’m asking parents to join me. Turn your anger into resolve. Attend board meetings. Contact the district. Ask questions. Find out where your children are in skill. Make sure your children have the skills they need to move forward. If you can, work for systemic change. Together, perhaps we can turn this thing around.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "Social-promotion policy fails students." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Dec. 2, 2008 at at

No comments:

Post a Comment