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To the Editor:

Jack Frymier's Commentary ("Retention in Grade Is 'Harmful' to Students," Dec. 6, 1989) cites research indicating that retention is harmful in several ways.

Retained students, this research suggests, are more likely to learn less the following year, develop negative self-concepts, drop out, and commit crimes.

Of course they are. But any first-year logic student knows the fallacy of post hoc reasoning.

Retention doesn't cause these effects, it is another effect. The causes are much deeper.

Ten years after our school ceased social promotions, I am convinced that a policy of retention is beneficial to most students, though not necessarily to those retained.

Mr. Frymier's analysis of costs and benefits is inadequate; a more sophisticated analysis would consider the increased productivity of those working to avoid retention where a clear-cut promotion standard and frequent, detailed grade reporting exist.

The proportion of work completed improves, and parents are aroused to pay closer attention to their youngsters' grades and to spur the school to provide help.

The students who benefit most are those in the oft-forgotten middle range of ability and achievement--the majority in a typical school.

This group is a huge reservoir of intellectual talent that, if unchallenged, goes underdeveloped. Like most of us, these students respond to the stick as well as the carrot, and the possibility of retention is a very effective stick indeed.

Yet I've not seen serious research on the topic of retention that even alludes to the benefits for these students. It's as if speed limits are relevant only to those who get caught breaking them.

I agree that it is not especially productive to have retained students simply repeat the same material--although about half of ours do much better the second time around, a fact we attribute to our insistence that repeating is an extra opportunity, not a punishment.

Ideally, they should pick up where they left off the previous year or, better still, study right through the summer.

Some students learn more slowly than others, and if the diploma is to signify any worthwhile standard, some will need more time to achieve it.

Perhaps we'd do well to abandon the administrative convenience of grade levels and get serious about dealing with individual progress.

I don't know what the impact of scrapping the system of grade levels might be on the purveyors of class jewelry or on the eligibility rules for sports.

I do know that the natural tendency toward the mean in classes grouped by age rather than achievement retards the learning process of at least as many as it helps.

Since the growth potential of the faster half is, by definition, greater than the slower half, the result is a net loss in total achievement.

There are practical and ethical limits to this line of thinking. Maturity matters, and so do individuals. But aggregate achievement matters, too, even at the cost of providing more time for those who need it.

As long as we have "promotion," we need judicious retention as a means of quality control.

Bob Arp
Principal
Lakeview High School
Columbus, Neb.


To the Editor:

While I can't deny that--as Jack Frymier argues--retention is harmful, the real question is whether not retaining a student causes even greater harm.

Allowing a child to continue from grade to grade while failing to achieve can only lead to lower self-esteem and a defeatist attitude.

Yes, there should be better ways to help those students: teachers adequately trained in the essential elements of instruction and in mastery learning, resources to address different learning styles, and a host of other components.

But the fact remains that most schools are still not prepared to work with every type of child.

Students who are promoted while failing to achieve may end up in the country's court and penal systems.

The $4,500 cost of retaining a student is minor in comparison to the price of following this avenue.

Jim Haas
Principal
Pierson Junior High School
Kansas City, Kan.


To the Editor:

The statistics cited in Jack Frymier's Commentary are impressive, but I wonder how much time these researchers have spent in classrooms.

Have they witnessed the plight of the child entering a new grade in September who is not able to understand what is going on?

Have they tried to tutor a junior-high student who is placed two or more years above his achievement level but has never been retained?

It would have been interesting if the researchers had compared the results of children held back in the primary grades with those of students retained at higher levels.

In the early grades, children who are far behind do so little grade-level work that retention for them usually means another year to complete rather than repeat the previous year.

I have seen children in 1st and 2nd grade who were impossibly behind moved back to the preceding level in the first month or two of school.

These youngsters have often shown success, going on through school in the upper half of their grades.

Such decisions are not easy, and there is no decision appropriate for every child. However, no child should be retained in 4th grade or above.

Mr. Frymier's suggested strategies for reteaching the children who are promoted instead of retained are excellent examples of what all teaching should be.

Why doesn't he recommend such methods for all classes?

I like the modern practice of children working in groups. We need to strive for excellence for all--not separation into winners and losers.

Mary R. Khan
Morgan Hill, Calif.


To the Editor:

Jack Frymier contends that schools should pass every student, regardless of effort or ability, and that holding a child back is harmful to his self-image and may lead to dropping out, criminal behavior, and other dire consequences.

What incentives does "providing a new experience" offer if there is no consequence for a student's ignoring this experience, as he has neglected the previous year's "new experience"?

We eventually find ourselves with a student who has been ignoring his new experiences for 12 years and now graduates from high school--because, heavens, we couldn't hold him back.

This product of education can't read, write, or add, but he has positive feelings about himself.

Those feelings will change rapidly when he tries to get a job, and the schools will again be blamed for the students they are turning out.

Art Blecke
Principal
Antioch Community High School
Antioch, Ill.


To the Editor:

If one opens flat your Dec. 6, 1989, issue, one is struck by the juxtaposition of your article on multi-age classrooms ("First Stirrings of a New Trend: Multi-Age Classrooms Gain Favor") and Jack Frymier's Commentary on retention.

Many of the costs of the latter practice to individuals and to society could be alleviated, if not eliminated, through widespread adoption of the former.

Doug Swift
Albuquerque, N.M.

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