From the Polls
Polls (here and here) show that parents like the public schools their children attend, like charter schools, but don’t like vouchers. The latter is not surprising. When voucher programs have been on the ballot and citizens have the chance to choose one way or another voucher plans have been defeated. The voucher programs currently in existence have been set in place by legislatures.
Another very disturbing fact to come out of the polls is the public’s support of retention in grade (aka “being held back” or “flunking”) as a means to remediate children. We know that retention doesn’t work…over 100 years of research has shown that retention doesn’t work as a remediation technique and often has a negative effect on children — emotionally and academically.
The public likes retention because it has a certain common-sense feel about it. If a child didn’t do well in a grade give him another year to “catch up.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in practice.
Teachers might use retention because they are pressured to or just don’t want to “socially promote” children. They often don’t know what else to do or have no other alternative because of lack of funding. Some teachers claim that retention works because they have seen a retained student do well the following year. The research shows, however, that by the second or third year after retention, students who were retained have lost any gains they made.
Initial academic improvements may occur during the year the student is retained. However, many research studies show that achievement gains decline within 2–3 years of retention. This means that over time, children who were retained either do not show higher achievement, or sometimes show lower achievement than similar groups of children who were not retained. Without specific interventions, most retained students do not catch up. [emphasis added]
The Education Next poll specifically asked whether state tests should carry high stakes. The answer was a resounding yes, with nearly 8 in 10 respondents supporting requirements that third graders pass a reading test before advancing to fourth grade and that high school students pass exit exams before earning a diploma.
What we know now about grade retention: Grade retention is growing in popularity across the U.S., represented by accountability policies in Florida. But grade retention has been shown by four decades of research not to achieve the goals advocates claim, and to cause harm.
Just because the public says we should retain children doesn’t mean we should, but in order to prevent children from being punished by retention it’s up to us, as educators, to make sure that the choice to retain is made as infrequently as possible.
Alternatives to Retention: A False Dichotomy
Teachers, Parents, Administrators, and policy makers all denounce social promotion. Many will claim that retention is the only option left when students can’t or won’t perform. Are those the only two options? In today’s world of low budget schools, large classes, overtested students and overworked teachers it’s unrealistic to believe that an average school system would have the money to choose a different path. However, that’s what it would take if we were serious about student achievement.
Students who are retained are most often males, low-income, and minorities. The main deficit for students who are retained is reading. Reading is the one skill which needs to be nurtured before a child begins school. That’s why good preschool programs are so important for low-income children. Good preschool programs cost money.
The fact is that as a nation, we don’t really care about student achievement. We care about test scores. If we really cared about student achievement we wouldn’t be closing schools whose students are struggling. We wouldn’t be evaluating teachers using test scores and punishing those teachers who work with the most difficult to educate students. We wouldn’t be rewarding “successful” schools with more funding, and we wouldn’t be replacing experienced educators with trainees.
We would be investing more in the education of students who need the most help. We would be providing incentives for our most gifted educators to teach in the most difficult situations. We would be focused on the root causes of lower achievement — poverty and societal neglect.
While we as educators have no control over what we should be doing, there are some things that we can do. Retention and social promotion are not the only choices. Instead of retention or social promotion the following alternatives to retention are worth exploring and investing in…
- Promotion or retention with additional instruction is more effective than either policy alone.
- The issue is not what to adapt but how to provide appropriate instruction given student diversity.
- Future research should denote attention to locating, developing, and evaluating effective organizational responses to differences in student abilities and competencies.
- Utilizing the concept of “schools within a school,” have teams of teachers, who hold students to high educational standards and communicate the belief that all can succeed, while engaging all students in challenging, meaningful activities that range from authentic problems to explore real-world issues. Also, relating classroom activities to students’ culture, knowledge and experience are recommended as viable, instructional alternatives to retention.
- Tutorial (i.e., peer, cross-age, and adult), extended “basic skills,” cooperative learning, extended year programs, multi-grade groupings, and individualized instruction through technology are additional alternative approaches recommended from the research.
- Remedial help, before-and after-school programs, summer school, instructional aides to work with target children in regular classrooms, and individualized education plans can provide the support for students being promoted but still needing to improve academically.
- Recruiting parents, university students, and community volunteers to work with students having difficulties is still an important source of support. Parent involvement continues to be needed for the success of all students.
- Base eligibility for promotion on multiple measures rather than on a single test; develop measures of achievement that measure what is actually taught in class.
- Avoid the tendency to teach only “the basic,” instead, provide a varied and challenging curriculum.
- Include the average child while attempting to raise the level of the low achiever so that higher promotional standards mean higher achievement for all students.
- Support a curriculum philosophy that is designed to meet the needs of the child.
- Alternative placement programs should be considered for the over-aged middle school students to provide an instructional program and a support system based on acceleration rather than remediation.
- Teachers and administrators should consistently resist parental and societal pressures to increase the academic demand of the curriculum to developmentally inappropriate levels, and resist enrollment, retention, and placement practices that are based on a single developmental or screening measure.
- Implement pre-service and in-service training programs for teachers and administrators, emphasizing strategies that provide students additional time and individualized attention.
- Consider adopting or adapting one of the model programs proven to help at-risk students on the basis of identified needs and a collective vision…
Early and intense intervention works better than retention or social promotion.
- Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina
- Grade Retention
- Ending Social Promotion Without Leaving Children Behind
- What Research Says about Grade Retention
- Alternatives to Grade Retention (NASP)
- Alternatives to Grade Retention (AASA)
- Alternatives to Grade Retention (NAESP)
- My Postings on Grade Retention
- Information under RESEARCH ON RETENTION IN GRADE in the menu at the right on my main blog page
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.