One of education’s dirtiest little secrets is the practice of social promotion. It’s not a secret among educators, of course. But if the public ever really understood this practice, we’d have to brace for a firestorm. The theory behind social promotion is this: It is more damaging to students’ self-esteem to retain them than it is to promote them, by some sort of special dispensation, to the next grade level. This holds true even if they have not mastered concepts and knowledge critical to the next level of learning.
Social promotion is a peculiar academic concept and one that I suspect has contributed to the sad state of American schools. Logic tells us that a student who has failed to grasp a step in the sequence of learning needs more help, more time, or both, before proceeding to the next step. To pass that student on without the requisite knowledge is both unprofessional and damaging to the student. Passing students simply because they breathed doesn’t produce students with good self-esteem; it produces students who can’t do anything.
My middle school students have a higher-than-normal rate of absenteeism, less support at home for the benefits of education, more opportunities to go astray with drugs, alcohol, or crime. I have had students who went through their entire 8th grade year completing only a handful of assignments. I have had students who have been absent for weeks on end, who spend months in treatment programs with no time for school. I have had students who are faithful in attendance but who merely occupy space.
My school is notable for the lengths it will go to keep students in school, to help them move through the grade levels. For some, this extraordinary effort pays off. But for many more, it does not.
I have called parents, had conferences, threatened, cajoled, and persuaded. I have kept students after school, taken work to their homes, sent them to Saturday school. Yet more than a few of these students simply do not produce enough work. Or their work is so substandard that I can’t legitimately give them a passing grade in the class. And I don’t. But the next fall, they’ve moved on to 9th grade.
Then I hear from their 9th grade teacher how unmotivated they are, how they don’t know what a paragraph is or when to use a comma, how poorly they read. And I know the chances are good that as seniors, they will still not know these things, and probably much more.
This fraudulent progression from 8th to 12th grade is antithetical to my purpose as an educator. I know that my inability to retain students perpetuates the system and ensures their failure. It makes me feel guilty and frustrated as hell.
These students will struggle through high school, be teased and ridiculed by classmates, passed over for academic recognition. Rather than further expose their ignorance, they will be absent on the days they have to give speeches or take tests. If they do graduate, these young people will be befuddled by forms, job applications, contracts, newspapers. No scientific studies can convince me that we are doing these kids any favors. No one can say we are boosting anyone’s self-esteem by guaranteeing them a meaningless school experience.
But logic--ah, logic!--tells us that people work best when they are doing meaningful work toward a meaningful goal. It’s logical that self-esteem is a byproduct of accomplishment, not the other way around. What can social promotion really mean to students who know they’ve just slid through? The kids who receive something that they’ve not earned know it’s an empty gift.
Students today know they will be passed along whether they work or not, whether they learn or not, whether they care or not. All they have to do is put in the time, and often not even that.
As a teacher, I’m angry. I start the year with my 8th graders knowing that what I do essentially doesn’t matter. About a third of the class will pass without really learning anything. They might feel good about themselves, but I doubt it.
Yet we all go on pretending. The good students pretend that it’s important to do the work, and the poor students pretend that it’s not. And the teachers ? Well, we are the worst of all. We pretend that having students feel good about themselves is more important than their learning to communicate, calculate, and understand how government works. We pretend there is no link between achievement and effort, between accomplishment and self-esteem. We pretend that we can simply bequeath success to students by never permitting them to fail.
The author is a secondary teacher at White Swan (Wash.) Middle/High School.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Social Promotion: An Empty Gift