Nearly a hundred years of research has provided us with enough information so that we know retention-in-grade (aka flunking) is not an effective remediation technique. The research consistently shows that, with few exceptions, long-term success of students is not improved using grade retention.
For years educators and pundits have been arguing about which works, retention or social promotion. I have heard teachers support retention because,
- it gives the child another year to grow
- it gives the child a chance to catch up
- social promotion doesn’t work
- we have to do something
The first two reasons have been proven to be false. The second two are, indeed, a reason to try something but just because educators can’t think of anything (or can’t afford anything) other than retention as an alternative to social promotion doesn’t mean those are the only two choices.
For too long the argument has focused on two bad approaches to solving the problem of low student achievement and neither of them improve children’s learning.
On the other hand we do know what works. We do know how to keep many at-risk children from failing. Unfortunately, we don’t want (or can’t afford) to invest the money, time or resources to get it done.
What works in school is early and intensive remediation.
It’s with this in mind that Glenda Ritz, the Indiana State School Superintendent, has proposed changing the requirement that students who don’t pass the third grade reading test, IREAD-3, repeat third grade.
Indiana‘s requirement that third-graders pass a reading test before advancing to fourth grade could be short-lived. State School Superintendent Glenda Ritz will ask the State Board of Education next month to make it a last-resort option for schools to hold back third graders who flunk the I-READ test.
…Ritz wants to replace the high-stakes aspect of I-READ with a commitment to test reading throughout the school year.
“We’re not going to wait until the end of the school year with a pass/fail test and say now let’s remediate,” Ritz says. “We’re actually going to provide interventions the whole time.”
The important aspect of this proposal is not whether retention doesn’t work or social promotion doesn’t work, it’s the commitment to providing interventions for students who are struggling.
Because of the limitations of her job, Ritz can only deal with what’s possible under the auspices of the Department of Education. Since out-of-school factors account for a significant part of student achievement, a comprehensive approach to improving achievement must include out of school interventions.
In order to improve achievement of students most at risk — those who live in poverty — we need to look at the research in that area. David C. Berliner, in Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, identifies 7 areas which significantly affect the health and learning opportunities of children.
…(1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics. These [out-of-school factors] are related to a host of poverty-induced physical, sociological, and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior.
Also discussed is a seventh OSF, extended learning opportunities, such as pre- school, after school, and summer school programs that can help to mitigate some of the harm caused by the first six factors.
Policies which affect students living in poverty, nearly 25% of America’s children, must be in place to help alleviate out of school factors in addition to research based in-school interventions. If we focus on in-school interventions only, no matter how good they are, or how hard we work, the effects will be hindered by the out of school factors listed above.
Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect outputs from them.
Therefore, it is recommended that efforts be made to:
- Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans,
- Reduce drug and alcohol abuse,
- Reduce pollutants in our cites and move people away from toxic sites,
- Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens,
- Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity,
- Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households,
- Improve mental health services among the poor,
- More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities,
- Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children,
- Provide high-quality preschools for all children, and
- Provide summer programs for the poor to reduce summer losses in their academic achievement.
The current tendency of “reformers” to blame “bad teachers” and “failing schools” is short sighted. The single-minded focus on school based solutions like vouchers and charter schools, ignores the fact that schools can’t solve all problems.
- Privatization is not going to change the fact that we have nearly one-fourth of our children living in poverty. It will increase (and already has increased) economic segregation.
- Lowering standards for educators (teachers, principals and superintendents) will not improve student achievement. It will simply weaken the teaching profession and discourage “the best and the brightest” from choosing a career in education.
- Blaming teachers unions and teachers for “bad teachers” doesn’t change the fact that children come to school with problems outside the ability of schools to overcome. We don’t have a crisis of “bad teachers” in America. We have a systemic societal crisis which has a negative impact on the achievement of our children.
This doesn’t mean that schools need to keep teachers who aren’t doing their job. It doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t improve instructional approaches…and it doesn’t mean that we should ignore appropriate evaluations of students, teachers, and administrators.
It does mean, though, that we need to expand the concept of “school reform” to include social, health, and economic reform. Politicians, pundits and policy-makers need to accept their responsibility for the factors which contribute to low school achievement.