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Response: Thoughts On Grade Level Retention & Social Promotion

P.J. Vermont asked:

Does grade-level retention work as an accountability tool for students and parents?

It's an important question, P.J., and I'm sure it's one that weighs heavily on the minds of many teachers and administrators.

Personally, I try as much as possible to base all of my student-related decisions and perspectives -- grades, discipline, feedback -- on the answer to one question: Will what I'm thinking of doing help the student "move forward"?

In other words, will it encourage him/her to want to continue learning? Will it help the student develop intrinsic motivation? Will it increase the odds of him/her wanting to stay in school?

Based on my personal experience, and based on all the research I have read (see The Best Resources For Learning About Grade Retention, Social Promotion & Alternatives To Both), I really can't see how using grade level retention would contribute towards moving a student "forward." But I'm equally dissatisfied with the idea of "social promotion."

So I turned to Donald Moore, the Executive Director of Chicago-based Designs For Change, an "educational research and reform organization focused on fundamentally improving public education in the nation's big cities." Don is a nationally-recognized expert on the issue, and I invited him to share his perspective:

Both retention and social promotion have proven equally ineffective. Advocates for grade retention defend retention by posing an either/or choice: If you are against grade retention, you must favor "social promotion," (allowing unprepared students to drift from grade to grade with no special help). However, a number of proven strategies for addressing low achievement have strong research support and are much less costly than repeating a grade.

Prevention is the best solution (for example, through high quality early childhood education and using best practices to teach reading). since prevention avoids low achievement before it be it becomes critical

However, for educators who are confronted with a low-achieving student they are tempted to retain, the best solution is to promote that student, but to subsequently provide intensive special help. There is a strong study indicating that promotion coupled with intensive special help is much more effective than either retention or social promotion.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research carefully studied Chicago's massive grade retention program initiated in 1997. The researchers subsequently found that Chicago's retained students did no better than students who were simply "socially-promoted" (and did worse at some grade levels) and that retained students had significantly higher dropout rates, compared with similar low-scoring students who were not retained. Further, grade retention is enormously expensive, since retention involves paying the cost of an extra year of schooling, not counting such additional services as summer school for retained students. The Consortium researchers urged Chicago to abandon its expensive harmful grade retention program.

Other researchers have reached these same conclusions consistently in studying grade retention over decades, although it is difficult to win the public debate about retention, since it sounds like common sense to "give these low-scoring students another year to catch up." However, the social stigma of repeating a grade negates any benefits of an extra year of instruction.

And what makes educational sense for students also makes economic sense for school systems and communities. If 25% of the money saved from a year of retention is spent instead for high quality intervention for the promoted student, the school system comes out ahead economically. And the long-term savings of students graduating, rather than dropping out, are well-documented, both for communities and students.

I appreciate Don pointing out that the best solutions for our students in this case, like in so many other challenges facing us in education and in other areas, may not be found by looking at it through an "either/or" lens.

Our inner-city high school, through the leadership of our exceptional principal, Ted Appel, has tried to maintain this same focus on providing needed student support. The school is divided into seven Small Learning Communities of 300 students and twenty teachers each, and students stay in most classes together during their four year high school career. This greatly reduces the odds of a a student "falling through the cracks," and Ted's success at obtaining funds has also allowed us to hire additional counselors for the same purpose. He has even found money that lets students hire -- and fire -- teachers of their choice to provide extra tutoring.

Advice From Readers

Readers shared other advice and comments:

Nancy Flanagan, my extraordinary blogging colleague here at Education Week Teacher:

With a few exceptions--like students who are retained by an observant kindergarten teacher who suggests more time to develop, or a child whose school year was disrupted by illness or moving--nope.

One of the scariest things I've observed as a middle school teacher is a trend toward dads asking that their not-yet-in-puberty sons be retained, so they'd be bigger and heavier than other boys when they got to HS, for athletic reasons.

Really--there are almost no good reasons to retain kids, including the most common: punishment. When a child repeats a grade as payback for not trying hard enough, it positions all learning as something to despise.

NYC HS ESL teacher, however, raises a concern:

In high school, social promotion has meant that students arrive in high school with fourth grade reading levels. This makes me think grade retention is better. I wonder if these kids, interviewed, would rather have repeated a grade, rather than having a harder time each year thereafter.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks again to P.J. for posing this week's question, and to Don, Nancy and NYC HS ESL teacher for sharing their answers!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I'll be posting next week's question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday's post responding to that "question of the week."

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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