Student Achievement Opinion

Get Rid of Retention And Social Promotion

By John Merrow — March 31, 2004 6 min read
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We should be using our knowledge to maximize learning for children, not to make schooling easier for adults.

When New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg drew a line in the sand and said, “No more social promotion in our schools,” one could argue that he was doing what leaders are supposed to do: set clear policy. But because it is unlikely that he and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein will give educators the authority and the tools to do the job, it’s more accurate to say that the mayor is just the latest in a long line of leaders to fall into the phony trap, social promotion vs. retention.

And therefore, it will be just a matter of time before New York schools go back to business as usual, which is social promotion, the practice of advancing students with their age group despite academic shortcomings. The usual alternative, retention in grade, is what most of us think of as “staying back.”

Retention and social promotion are the educational equivalent of Dr. Doolittle’s two-headed llama, “Pushmi-pullyu,” going nowhere and wasting a lot of energy in the process. Neither one works, both do more harm than good (particularly to very young children), and yet school districts can’t seem to resist either.

Retention is a popular tool. A 1996 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 16.8 percent of seniors had repeated at least one grade since kindergarten, which is consistent with the National Association of School Psychologists’ 1998 finding of about 15 percent. The grades most frequently repeated were kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade. That seems to be changing, probably because of the accountability demands of the No Child Left Behind law. According to a new study by Boston College researchers, the rate at which 9th grade students don’t get promoted to 10th grade has tripled in the past 30 years.

You can probably guess who’s most likely to be retained: poor, minority, and inner-city kids. Boys are much more likely than girls to be retained in grade.

Augusta Kappner, the president of New York City’s Bank Street College of Education, notes that many schools eagerly embraced retention in the 1930s, ’50s, and ’80s, but each time swung back to social promotion. Lorrie Shepard, the dean of education at the University of Colorado, says there’s a seven- or eight-year cycle, swinging between retention and social promotion. “Now politicians are seeing retention as the remedy,” she told the Harvard Education Letter in 1999. “Once they feel the negative side effects, they’ll back off.”

Retention has a negative effect on school budgets, and it may be the cost of retention—as much as $5,000 more per student per year—that leads to its abandonment. In his newly released autobiography, Romances With Schools, John I. Goodlad calls it economic promotion. A study done around the beginning of the 20th century, he writes, “alerted the leaders of large urban school districts to the added costs of retaining pupils in grades and thus increasing the time and costs of their completing elementary schooling. Almost immediately, the call to principals was to keep moving the children along.”

Actually, New York City has “gotten tough” on failing students before. It embraced retention in the 1980s, but found that despite pumping in additional resources for summer school and smaller classes, achievement levels remained low. After three years, New York abandoned the get-tough policy.

Most school districts have publicly rejected social promotion and embraced retention at one time or another, including Chicago and Philadelphia, but without much prolonged success. It was Chicago’s apparent early success that prompted President Clinton to propose in his 1999 State of the Union Address that social promotion be banned nationwide. Later studies indicated that retention didn’t work in Chicago either.

Politicians love to take potshots at social promotion, an easy target. Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida is firmly on the record: “Social promotion doesn’t do a child any favors. Work gets harder in the higher grades, and students that have not yet mastered the basics have much less chance of learning new, advanced material.”

And when Jeb Bush’s brother was the governor of Texas, he too condemned social promotion in his 1999 State of the State Address, although he hasn’t talked about it in his State of the Union messages. At least 14 states have banned social promotion.

There’s ample evidence of retention’s negative side effects, which include higher dropout rates, poor attendance, increased behavior problems, and lowered self-esteem. Professor Shepard of the University of Colorado found that kids who had been retained in grade were from 20 percent to 30 percent more likely to drop out of school. Most research indicates that kids who are held back do not do better academically.

But social promotion doesn’t work either. Research confirms that social promotion—just like retention—increases dropout rates. It does nothing to increase student achievement; after all, the socially promoted students haven’t mastered last year’s material. Which means that eventually social promotion creates graduates who lack the necessary skills for employment—not a pretty picture.

Because neither policy works, educators have tried middle-of-the-road alternatives like tutoring, smaller classes for struggling students, longer class periods, caring relationships, “looping” (in which a teacher stays with a class of children for two or more grade levels), and grouping children of different ages in a single classroom.

This last suggestion comes closest to a solution, but it still does not address the flawed design of early education: age segregation. Schools separate children by age because it’s convenient for the adults, not because 6-year-olds are developmentally different from 5-year-olds or 7-year-olds.

Schools separate children by age because it's convenient for the adults.

What makes developmental sense is grouping all the children who normally would be in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st and 2nd grades. Let those teachers work together with the common goal of getting everyone to the agreed-upon “2nd grade” level, at a minimum.

Teachers would do whatever it took to see that every child succeeded. Some young kids would be reading early and therefore would be in groups with older children. Those same children might be with their age peers in arithmetic. The point is no one would pay much attention, because everyone would be focused on achieving.

But would this be a return to “ability grouping,” something seen as undemocratic? On the contrary, it would reward accomplishment, not ability, although teachers would have to monitor progress regularly to ensure mobility within clusters of children.

Eliminated entirely would be the phony and harmful concepts of “social promotion” and “retention in grade,” which, as noted earlier, are most common in kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade. It’s beyond idiotic to stigmatize 5-year-olds as failures!

The next group would consist of the 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds, the kids we think of as 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. Then, 6th and 7th graders together, after which the single grade structure would work—especially because, by then, most kids would have learned what they need to know to be successful.

However, retention should be an option in the higher grades, because by that time students should be expected to take a great deal of responsibility for their learning.

Ending age segregation would be going back to schooling’s roots (thus making it “radical” in the original sense). Because today we have a clearer idea of standards and know more about measuring learning, we should be using our knowledge to maximize learning—not to make schooling easier for adults, to play “gotcha,” and to stigmatize children.

Social promotion and retention are failed policies that should be abandoned. They’re the equivalent of a coin flip in which both sides are losers.

John Merrow reports on education for the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” and is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. His latest documentary, “First to Worst,” tells the story of the decline of California’s public schools over the past 30 years. It is now airing on PBS stations across the country.


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