Reading & Literacy Opinion

There Is No Such Thing as Social Promotion

By Nancy Flanagan — September 25, 2016 4 min read
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Alternate title: Third Grade Flunk Club Rears Its Ugly Head. Again.

It seems that the promoters of “kids who fail have to be smacked upside the head with their shortcomings” have hit on a recycled tactical meme every educator is familiar with: using “social promotion” as a boogeyman to drive home the point that some kids just don’t deserve to move ahead to a new grade. With their peers and friends.

It’s hard to keep track of which states require retention as punishment (let’s call it what it is--this has nothing to do with “accountability”) for non-readers. The latest good data I could find says at least 16 states require public failure for students who are not reading at grade level, determined by a standardized test--with several combinations of out clauses.

In some states, parents can refuse retention. In others, teachers or principals can stop the flunk train, for “good cause.” Some states allow alternative assessments, others let students with IEPs off the hook. It’s a muddle.

An ugly, pointless muddle. But it’s “for their own good,” right?

After five years of threatening to pass a 3rd grade reading bill, then retreating to deal with other damaging legislation, Michigan joined the Third Grade Flunk club last week. The final showdown was over whether a reading teacher-principal combination could prevent automatic failure. Answer: no.

By far the best analysis of this bill came from attorney Nick Krieger (who thinks it’s unconstitutional). Here’s his conclusion, but the whole piece is brilliant, relevant and worth a read:

HB 4822 would burden Michigan's public schools with new and complex responsibilities. It would increase costs for local school districts. It would send the false message that Michigan's reading teachers are "failing." It would largely reject the notion that children learn to read in different ways and at different rates. And it would probably violate the state constitution. Education experts, not politicians, should be making decisions about elementary-school reading proficiency.

Nobody in ed-world denies that learning to read is critical to success in school and life. Google “third grade reading” and you will pull up millions--literally--of blue-ribbon reports and advocacy articles on how we have to get kids reading, the sooner the better. Tick-tock.

Somewhere in the first two paragraphs, the writer will probably assert that before third grade, kids learn to read, but after third grade, they read to learn. It’s the second-most used cliché, right after “social promotion.”

Here’s the irony: We have now let “data” rather than compassion and professionalism run the very arbitrary grading system that automatically sorts children by age, achievement, effort, and even character. We’re still relying on Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theories on “efficiency,” when sorting students by age, then dividing them into tracks (based on teachers’ opinions) was socially acceptable. All of these practices are so familiar that they feel natural--scientifically precise, even reasonable. But they’re not.

Nothing is ever neat and tidy in education --especially learning. Kids learn at different rates. Their ultimate achievement is genuinely unpredictable. In the flood of anger over this new law, parents are sharing stories about their child who was a non-reader at age 8, but is currently working as an engineer--or spoke no English when the family emigrated when she was in kindergarten, but graduated at the top of her high school class. Imagine what labeling them failures would have done.

In addition, the schools that will have to bear the significant costs of retaining more children--upwards of $10,000 per--are often the very places where that money could be put to better use: free after-school tutoring or backpacks full of books to keep, for starters.

What’s most frustrating is that legislators and wrong-headed commenters are buying the “social promotion” myth when, to quote David Berliner: It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental.

That’s right--holding kids back, pushing their noses in their struggles, is harmful. And the poster state for public failure in third grade, Florida, is now home to a new cottage industry: strategic assistance in preventing mandated retention.

Consider this: high-achieving Finnish children begin formal schooling, including reading instruction, at age seven. A single year before 17 or more states start separating out and labeling weak readers.

So--I spoke with my representative in the Michigan House (who served on the Education Committee) explaining why I thought this bill was a disaster. He thanked me, noting that he was a meat cutter and not a teacher. I asked about ALEC, the “model-legislation” source for this bill.

Oh no, he said. “It didn’t come from ALEC, it came from Florida. They came and did a presentation for us. The year after they first retained third graders, the fourth grade scores went way up.” I paused--surely he understood why, if you take all the struggling readers out of the class, scores would go up. But no.

There is no such thing as social promotion. We should be teaching the kids we get, with their strengths and weaknesses. We should have the resources to provide extra help for those who need it. And we should stop playing political games with their self-concept.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.