President Clinton once again calls for an end to "social promotion." If the kids aren't cutting it, hold them back in the same grade. The syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne worries that retaining children in grade might turn out to be just another gimmick. It is worse. It is a disaster. Given the increasing popularity of using failure as a pedagogical technique, it is important to know this about retaining children in grade: It doesn't work.
Unlike most aspects of education which have contending forces pulling in opposite directions, the body of research on flunking kids speaks with a single voice. One 1991 study reviewed the research literature on 49 educational innovations, calculated their impact on achievement, and then ranked them in order of power. Retention in grade ranked 49th. It was among the few innovations that actually produced negative results. I recently reviewed and updated this research literature, adding studies not available to the 1991 analysis. Nothing has changed.
Why do people think failing kids works? In large part because they are not in a position to conduct a controlled experiment. Teachers and parents usually can see only how retained children fare the next year. They do better--on the same material they did poorly on the first time around. A little better. Few blossom into high achievers. Teachers and parents, watching the children struggle in the second year in the same grade then assume, reasonably, that the children's situation would have been that much worse had they been promoted.
But there have been situations in which some children who had low achievement were promoted while other children of the same low achievement were flunked. In those settings, the children who were promoted fared at least as well, usually better than those who were left behind.
Retention is often presented as the only alternative to "social promotion" or promotion for "seat time." In fact, it is nothing more than a way of pretending to do something for a child without actually doing anything. Except make the kid pay with another year in school, surrounded by a group of strangers, all younger than the flunked child. Some have declared that they need the threat of retention to make children work hard in school. The administrators and teachers who make this claim seem not to realize that it is a stunning admission of incompetence. As if they have nothing else in their motivational arsenals.
And, of course, these teachers and administrators--not to mention politicians like President Clinton--are left with nothing to say when presented with the school systems of Japan and much of Europe that do not retain--or track--children at all before the differentiated curricula of high school. In international comparisons, these systems score as well or better than the United States on everything except reading, where only Finland scores higher--their "social promotion" doesn't damage achievement. When I discussed retention with Danish educators while spending a summer in Denmark, they said they considered retention in grade a barbaric practice, something that would be practiced only by a primitive culture that didn't really like its children.
And it is true that retention has significant negative emotional outcomes in this country. One study found kids rated their fear of retention in grade just behind losing a parent or going blind. Other studies, while not so dramatic, typically find that retained children say they are "upset" or "sad" about it. No study has found that retention does wonders for self-esteem.
So what to do for low-achieving students? From an analysis of the research data, the answer seems to be this: Provide these children extra assistance, summer school if need be (something that is a lot less expensive than having the child repeat the same grade the next year), and then promote. Retention in grade is a practice that has no place in any society that thinks of itself as humane, as doing best by its children.
Whenever a district or state proposes tougher rules for retention, some folks express concern about the increased cost of retaining lots of children. They should worry. Retaining children greatly increases the probability of their dropping out. The good citizens will get their money back in the short term when the kids leave school before graduating, but pay many times over when these students end up on welfare or in prison.
Gerald W. Bracey is an independent educational researcher and writer in Alexandria, Va. He is the author of Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the United States, The Truth About Our Schools, and Put to the Test: A Consumer's and Educator's Guide to Standardized Tests.
Vol. 18, Issue 40, Page 42