RETENTION IN GRADE
The end of another school year…and it’s time to worry about all the third graders, 8 and 9 year olds, across the nation who are going to be punished because they can’t read “at grade level” as determined by a state test.
Retention in grade has been a common form of “remediation” for decades. It’s not academically or socially effective. It’s not cost effective. It often causes more damage than good. It increases the drop-out rate. But we still use it.
There are alternatives that work, but we don’t use what works because that would take a commitment of time and money…and we aren’t smart enough to plan for our nation’s future by investing now in education. Who is it that’s failing?
Given that there are students who don’t (or can’t) learn a year’s prescribed curriculum…and given that there is rarely extra money for effective remediation, teachers and administrators fall back on the arbitrary and false dichotomy of either retention or “social promotion.”
Here are some real things we can do from three teachers…actual teachers…with actual classroom experience…as opposed to most of the legislators who wrote the “third grade failure” laws of the various states.
- Lowering class size. If teachers have fewer students, especially early on, they will be better able to address individual learning needs.
- Providing age-appropriate preschools. Children who start out with rich early learning experiences, with exposure to play, good picture books and literary experiences, will likely have better learning results when they start school.
- Give teachers time to work with students. Teachers need to be freed from the shackles of high-stakes standardized testing so they can better understand reading disabilities.
- Kindergarten redshirting. If a child is younger than their classmates at the start of kindergarten they might be redshirted. Redshirting is having a child start kindergarten a year later. This isn’t always an easy decision.
- Evaluate the child for learning disabilities. A school psychologist should do a battery of tests to determine why a student isn’t progressing. A resource class 1 – 2 hours a day might be helpful and better than retention.
- Check on the child’s life situation. Children with personal problems can’t focus on school. There might be an illness or divorce in the family. Maybe a parent lost a job. When such problems are resolved the child could get back on their feet.
- It might be developmental. Some students just learn a little slower. A growth spurt might be just around the corner!
- Loop classes. Schools combine classes like first and second grade, and students have the same teacher, allowing the teacher more time to understand the student. It may give students time to catch up.
- Multi-level or multi-age classes. Several grades in a small setting with students working together—the one room schoolhouse idea—might assist a child.
- Tutoring. Enlist the assistance of high school students looking for service activities. And/or bring in volunteers from local businesses so they can learn about the difficulties facing students.
- Summer school. This might give the child more attention and a smaller more relaxed class setting, but they should get some vacation too!
- Absences might mean retention. Some children are immature and miss a lot of school. If they are small and have not bonded with classmates, retention might be a valid consideration—especially in kindergarten. This is not based on one test score but serious consideration of much information.
…there is no evidence that retention helps. There is a mountain of evidence that it hurts.
So if we actually wanted to solve the problem of third grade reading proficiency (and not, say, create yet open more crisis with which to force more evidence of public education failure), there are so many things we could do.
We could add additional teachers at the K-3 level so that each student could get more focused personal instruction.’
We could add more intervention programs and personnel so that the moment a student faltered, that child would get all the help she needed.
We could pursue aggressive programs to put books into children’s homes. Hell, we could pursue aggressive programs to write and publish materials that wide varieties of children (and their parents) would find appealing and attractive.
We could use methods of assessment that would more reliably tell us about student reading skills, and not more ridiculously inauthentic BS Testing.
We could listen to actual experts. There are plenty talking about this.
Last but not least, researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University:
If districts really want to meet the needs of third graders, Darling-Hammond said, they would pass struggling readers along to fourth grade and connect them with a teacher trained in a program like Reading Recovery, which has been reliably shown to improve the skills of youngsters who find reading difficult.
Critics might describe Darling-Hammond’s suggestions as “social promotion” —protecting student self-esteem by moving them along to the next grade, even if they aren’t academically ready. But Darling-Hammond says the dichotomy is a false one.
“People often present this as if there are only two choices — choice one is hold the kids back and the other is socially promote them without any additional resources or strategies,” Darling-Hammond said. “But the third way, the right response, is one in which you identify the resources they must have and ensure they are getting them immediately. They also should look at whether if you sit them down with a book, can they read? Because a lot of kids perform poorly on multiple-choice standardized tests who actually know the material if you present it in a more authentic way.”
In a nutshell, then, these three teachers have identified the problem. To quote Darling-Hammond, “…you identify the resources they must have and ensure they are getting them immediately…”
…and that takes a commitment to America’s future that we’re apparently not willing to make. Instead we punish children.
The narrow pursuit of test results has sidelined education issues of enduring importance such as poverty, equity in school funding, school segregation, health and physical education, science, the arts, access to early childhood education, class size, and curriculum development. We have witnessed the erosion of teachers’ professional autonomy, a narrowing of curriculum, and classrooms saturated with “test score-raising” instructional practices that betray our understandings of child development and our commitment to educating for artistry and critical thinking. And so now we are faced with “a crisis of pedagogy”–teaching in a system that no longer resembles the democratic ideals or tolerates the critical thinking and critical decision-making that we hope to impart on the students we teach.