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Guest Post: The Misleading Specter of "Social Promotion"

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Let's give it up for guest blogger Dan Brown, the author of the Bronx teacher memoir, “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.” You can email him at danbrownteacher@gmail.com.

It’s a rough time to be a struggling student in New York City.

Mayor Bloomberg has now pledged to end the “shameful practice of social promotion” for eighth-grade students who fail either of their two state tests or any core classes. This means nearly 17,000 more eighth-graders than last year may be retained. For his tough position on boosting standards and student accountability, Bloomberg has received much praise.

But what about those kids who will be left back? Who are these socially promoted hangers-on that each year skate by with sub-par marks, undermining the achievement of a serious educational institution?

The answer is innocent kids who aren’t getting the help they need and don’t know how to demand it.

Students come to school with low academic skills for a variety of reasons. In New York, many are faultless victims of the ever-present crush of poverty and its far-reaching tentacles. The school system’s obsession with high-stakes testing— a game struggling students are poorly equipped to play— exacerbates their frustration. Their self-esteem levels are rock bottom and oppositional behavior often takes root. Can you blame them?

Blindly pushing struggling students forward (social promotion) is not the answer, but neither is holding them back for another lap around a failed track. Retaining low-achieving students does not improve their academic future; in fact it often does quite the opposite.

The struggling student conundrum can’t be solved with false choices like the ones offered in the social promotion political debate, but with serious assessments of the short-term and long-term needs of students.

The short-term answer for failing students is a major investment in remediation and individualized support. Clearly, the traditional classroom set-up isn’t working for these students.

The long-term solutions, ones that deal with the root issues of why kids fall behind early on, are more complicated, and more important, for the future of New York City. Students don't spontaneously combust in middle school. When students fail in eighth grade, something has been wrong for a long time. We need our mayor to address how those students can be rescued before hitting a seemingly irreversible frustration level.

Today's middle school students have lived with high-stakes testing in the No Child Left Behind era for virtually their entire scholastic lives. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have worked unrelentingly to conflate school accountability with test performance, a practice with myriad negative consequences. Rather than making it a priority for school to be a nurturing and personal experience, our system sees many kids denied preschool, packed into overcrowded classrooms, denied support services like fundamental skills tutoring, denied much-needed counseling, and supervised by administrators often more worried about test scores than their real needs. It's no wonder that some students eventually give up.

Many of Bloomberg and Klein’s school reforms are dynamic and exciting, but the ones that they have not yet made are essential. A more substantial up-front investment in supporting all students will pay manifold dividends.

Bloomberg is an expert of the business sphere, but bottom-line-driven business models are an ill fit for the education of young human beings. Focusing on holding struggling students back rather than intensively attending to their academic needs is tantamount to blaming the victims. Many socially promoted students have unwittingly suffered the collateral damage of suffocating poverty at home and a depersonalized, test-obsessed regime at school. It’s time they had some doors opened for them, not slammed in their faces.
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