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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing: The Issue of Retention

By Peter DeWitt — March 12, 2012 5 min read
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We need to stop putting our expectations on our students and start helping them find their own.

It’s that time of year when educators continue the 3 R’s but turn their attention to the 4th R, which is retention. Students who have struggled all year are now being put on the list of students who are in need of retention. Unfortunately, retention will not work for many of them and they will continue to struggle long after they leave the teacher who held them back.

In a recent Education Week article entitled Data Show Retention Disparities by Erik Robelen, Caralee Adams and Nirvi Shah it was reported that there is substantial data that shows racial and ethnic disparities in the number of students who are retained every year. This report, along with many others, is another case against student retention.

In a study completed by Dutch researchers Goos et al researched the effects of first grade retention, Goos wrote that 7% of students repeat first grade (p.3) and it’s a standard and accepted practice by teachers and parents. Goos et al researched the perceived benefits of retaining students at such a young age.

Although students began their second year in first grade advanced in math and reading fluency, over time they leveled off with their peers and in many cases they fell behind by the end of the year. What was most interesting about the study was not necessarily how the children did academically, but how the teachers perceived the students did academically.

Many of the teachers in the study who had students who had been retained, did not feel that retention was beneficial for students, and therefore had strong opinions that the students were not doing well. Those teachers in the study lowered their expectations for those students, which leads one to think that retention did not just hurt the self-esteem of the students but it created lower expectations on the part of the teachers.

Goos et al stated , “Our findings seem to suggest that making children who are not keeping up repeat first grade, on average, is not helpful for their performance in math and reading fluency. Moreover, it seems that teachers (perhaps unconsciously) have severe negative perceptions with regard to repeaters.”

Students: Our Natural Resource
With rising class sizes and the pressures of high stakes testing, will schools go back to grade retention? It is my hope that the pressures from the outside that we cannot control do not put us back in a position to go back to an archaic practice that most times never worked. Our students need to be looked at from the whole child perspective and not from the vantage point of getting good test scores on a state test. Regardless of how well our students do on a test they remain our greatest resource.

Recently, New York Times writer Thomas J. Friedman had an Op Ed article titled Hold The Books, Pass The Oil focusing on the idea that our children are our most important resource. That resource is not always easy and it takes a great deal of work to cultivate. Some struggle to find their true gifts and we have to make sure that although we need to have expectations for them, that they are allowed to find their own as well. Retaining them forces those students to go back a few steps and may prevent them from finding their strengths.

How do we proactively work with children so they do not have to be retained? There are numerous ways to work with children but it also takes a change in our perspective. In an effort to get them to meet academic goals, retention can ruin the self-esteem of students. As much as students may need to learn how to fail at times and make mistakes, retention is a higher level of failure that many students do not recover from.

What Can Schools Do?
Differentiate instruction - This is a phrase that makes teachers cringe. What started out as a great idea has become a catch phrase that many educators do not want to hear. Unfortunately, differentiated instruction has become two dirty words when they shouldn’t be. In an interview with Carol Ann Tomlinson, she explains what differentiated instruction really means.

Response to Intervention - This is another area that educators do not always love to hear about. However, just like the above study by Goos et al it has to be done with integrity, which means that teachers must follow the interventions long enough that they will be allowed to work. If those interventions do not work, educators must make sure that they really don’t work rather then they are perceived not to work in an effort to receive more adult assistance in the classroom.

Change Instructional Practices - If something doesn’t work, try something different. More worksheets about a topic will not make a student better at school. Sir Ken Robinson has a Ted video that has been seen by millions. In it he talks about how schools are killing creativity. Stop death by ditto and work on reaching all modalities. Many educators (and high stakes tests) meet the needs of one type of learner. Many kids may not be able to read well but they have other gifts. Helps those kids find them.
The Whole Child - Some students will always struggle with reading or math but they have other strengths that need to be cultivated. Educate the whole child by helping them socially (peer relations), emotionally (building resiliency), physically (get them outside and active) and academically (we all know what this means).

In the End
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume was one of my favorite books when I was young. It is still wildly popular today. I enjoyed it so much that I read it twice. Once for each year I spent in fourth grade. Retention didn’t work for me because I struggled throughout my schooling, and I really felt like a fourth grade nothing. Watching peers move on as I stayed behind made me go from low self-esteem to no self-esteem at all. It took years to get it back.

Too often schools will retain students after a year of struggling, without offering any other good interventions for those students who were retained. Retention is considered the AIS intervention and the students flounder because at some point the academic rigor takes over and they find themselves struggling again.

Unfortunately, schools do not have crystal balls and they cannot see the future for a child. Retention may offer a great short term benefit of having a child enter the grade with skills but the long term effects to self-esteem can destroy any benefits that teachers may have thought retention would offer.

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On March 22nd Peter will be presenting on the topic of struggling learners at the National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference in Seattle.


Friedman, Thomas J. (2012) Hold the Books. Pass the Oil. New York Times.

Goos, Mieke & Jan Van Damme, Patrick Onghena, & Katja Petry. (2011) First-grade retention: Effects on children’s actual and perceived performance throughout elementary education

Jacob, Brian A. & Lars Lefgren (2009). The Effect of Grade Retention on High School Completion. Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
University of Michigan

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.