Summer Help in Math

** Do your children need outside help in math?
Have them take a free placement test
to see which skills are missing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Social-Promotion Policy Fails Students

In a school system with inadequate curricula, a dependence on constructivist teaching and insufficient focus on academics – some children won’t pick up the concepts before the end of the year. They’ll flunk the tests, they won’t complete their schoolwork, maybe they won’t learn how to multiply or divide – whatever it is – they won’t be ready for the next grade.

They’re probably going there anyway.

Many school districts have policies that students can’t be held back. In Spokane Public Schools, Procedure 4425, written in 1988, says, “No student shall be retained more than once during K-8 grades except in special cases” (“Policies,” 1988). The Procedure says it’s because “research demonstrates that retention does not help students who do not succeed because they have low potential; have social, emotional, or behavioral problems; or lack motivation.” The actual research is not cited.

I’ll cite a research report, then. A 2006 study (Greene & Winter, 2006) assessed the effects of a “test-based promotion policy.” The study found that two years after Florida students had been retained, they had “made significant reading gains relative to the control group of socially promoted students.” The socially promoted students, meanwhile, continued to fall farther behind.

In a January 2007 meeting, I asked (then Spokane Superintendent) Brian Benzel about the district’s policy. He said, “The research around retention shows a very negative correlation between retention and subsequent difficulties.” I asked him in what way, and he said: “It usually makes the learning problems worse rather than better. And so our practice is to differentiate instruction and to be, and to work with, we know that students come in all different sizes, shapes, and degrees of readiness to learn. The old system, if you will, kind of said, ‘We’re going to give you 6 hours a day for 180 days, for 12 ½ years, and we’re going to let the outcome vary. We’ll hold all the time constant, we’ll have managed inputs, and whatever happens, happens.’ In a world where we had Kaiser and farms and mining and timber, that worked fine. But now, as we move to more technology and knowledge, and information management, that isn’t working so well, so we’re in the midst of a big shift from holding our inputs constant to looking at the results being what we want to be constant, or, and we know that a student who starts out here compared to one who starts out here are going to need different things.”

It went on like that. He didn’t cite the actual research.

Being held back probably isn’t good for a child’s self-esteem at that moment, but that doesn’t mean the better thing to do is socially promote the child. Failing at something is a normal, natural part of life. It doesn’t feel good at the time, but it can be instructive – to the student, the family and the school’s accountability system.

I’m not advocating that schools hold back every child who doesn’t meet a standard. I’m pointing out a truth: If students don’t have the skills for the next grade, then some sort of intervention must take place. Procedure 4425 only makes sense if struggling students have a tutor and/or mandatory remedial work so they can get caught up before the next grade. (And this work should probably come with a different approach than it did the first time.)

For most students, there are no tutors. No spring or summer remedial work. Unless parents or teachers make a special effort to find out what’s missing and to get that information into the child’s head, the child is passed to the next grade without the skills needed to be successful there.

Robert Archer, a high-school teacher, said he’s frustrated that students are coming to his class unprepared:

“… many of my ninth-grade students … are thoroughly unprepared for high school in terms of both skills proficiency and work ethic. … What exactly is going on in grades 1-8 in the Spokane Public Schools? If the students are so lacking in basic academic and work skills, how are they even making it to ninth grade?” (2008).

Those students make it to ninth grade in that condition because they weren’t failed and they weren’t sufficiently helped.

I don’t want students to feel badly or stand out because they’re taller and older than everyone else. But things are what they are. How good can it be for their self-esteem to struggle all year and then be promoted to the next grade where they’ll continue to struggle and where the gap in skills is even wider? Do you suppose they’ll eventually get the idea that no one’s ever going to fail them, that maybe they don’t ever have to learn, that maybe there aren’t any real consequences for not trying?

“What are they going to do about it? Fail me? They can’t fail me,” one 4th-grader said to me. What that 4th grader doesn’t realize is that the district is failing him – not in the legitimate, honest way he’s imagining, but in a dishonest, illegitimate way, by passing him through and then blaming him for failing to learn, which it will continue to do until he either graduates or drops out, in either case totally unprepared for the workforce. Meanwhile, teachers wind up with evermore challenging classrooms that are stuffed with 28-30 students of widely varying degrees of ability. As everyone laments the situation, many of the students sadly (and falsely) come to believe they’re incapable of learning. How can such a policy possibly be about self-esteem?

(Pass them through, mind you, and the district doesn’t have to pay to educate them twice.)

Don’t you feel angry when you think about how the children are passed through, like so many defective toys, while the plant managers stand around, nodding their heads, saying how wonderful the production lines are, refusing to pluck any toys off, passing out plaques, winning awards and congratulating each other? The toys get to the end of the line, and there they are – not ready for the marketplace. Doesn’t it make you angry?

If I were a teacher, I’d be angry as I surveyed my students, knowing that half of them don’t have the skills to do the work I’m about to assign. I’d be angry knowing I might get into trouble for telling parents how it is. I’d be angry knowing administrators called it a sign of progress that last year’s WASL pass rate stood at 60% or less and that many of them say nothing at all is wrong. I’m not a teacher, but I’m angry. Doing my research, I spent more than a year angry. Then, I turned that anger into resolve.

I resolve to no longer accept the things that don’t make sense. I resolve to speak up, to advocate for change, to vote with my feet. I resolve to either make the public-school system work for my child – or find a different program that will. I resolve that – regardless of what happens in public school – my child will always be ready for the next grade. She will also become ready for postsecondary life, whatever she wants that to look like.

I’m asking parents to join me. Turn your anger into resolve. Attend board meetings. Contact the district. Ask questions. Find out where your children are in skill. Make sure your children have the skills they need to move forward. If you can, work for systemic change. Together, perhaps we can turn this thing around.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (November, 2008). "Social-promotion policy fails students." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Dec. 2, 2008 at at


Anonymous said...

Absolutely great article, Laurie.

Another way of thinking about the disconnect between those adults who make such policy decisions and the children and adults who have to live by those policies (as designed by staff directors):

These are drowning children. The adults who have to look into those eyes everyday and pass the children on while they are still in choppy waters often leave the profession, become apathetic, or burn themselves out trying to remedy the situation.

Meanwhile, there are what I call the "unaffected adults" riding high in the ship. They are looking at vistas ahead or their elevated status as directors moving around the deck chairs. They rarely look overboard at the water, and what's in it slapping against the ship's hull.

Until all those high-sitting directors have to sit in annual parent conferences and either answer hard questions about the failing child or, worse, wonder where the parents are, there won't be much change in attitudes. Only when people have to get in the lifeboats and watch drowning children's faces will they start understanding the reality of the problem.

(This is why I think every administrator, in any capacity, must have to teach 1/2 day every five years in order to renew his/her certificate. This would be in a "regular" classroom, of course.)

Anonymous said...

This is just one example of how the public education system has moved away from being held accountable for the results they produce. If everybody is promoted without any end-of-grade assessment, then there is less work and more free time for everyone. There are no summer schools to worry about, and those pesky parents who bug the schools as to why they failed to teach Johnny how to read, write, and do math. That can wait until they drop out of high school, or fail to get into the college of their choice. Even then, the system will probably blame the student for not being smart enough, or parents for not being responsible.

Absence of quantitative scoring or letter grades in elementary schools is another. It is virtually impossible to tell if someone is meeting grade level standards without any quantification. A student may go through the entire elementary school without knowing where he or she stands, either compared to a set of standards, or relative to their peers.

Parents would be well advised to get their kids tested using a private testing service, so they can find out if their kids are keeping up or falling behind.

Anonymous said...

Now imagine a parallel system in place for 22 Hispanics and 27 Non-Hispanics (Tiger Success Graduates) using the same constructivist curriculum but with no direct teaching or (certificated teachers) that had an official graduation rate of 6%. That would be Burlington Edison Alternative School, your state's vision of a probabilities school.

Anonymous said...

With the current curriculum you cannot have anything more than social promotion. It should be obvious by now that good teachers operate without textbooks. I am using two resources I purchased with my own money and getting outstanding results (minus textbooks). My students would be failing in learning centers if I were not teaching them. I even get refugees who just want to be in my classes so they can learn. I am so fed up... Our schools discriminate against the majority of children by not educating them and then fail them. Is it no wonder that we observe student misbehavior and defiance toward teachers.

Anonymous said...

I think grade level groupings are single handedly the most pernicious impediment to progress in public schools today. Bar none. No other stone in the road is as big.

Kids need to be taught in their ZPD. If the stuff in front of them is over their heads or boring them, I'll guarantee big behavior problems and little learning.

The reason retention is a failure is that it is mistakenly applied as a punishment instead of being correctly understood as a signal for redirection into remediation. Differentiation is a canard. No kid that stays back is going to get what they need from the very same teacher/curriculum that failed them.

This is not to say anything bad about the teacher/curriculum either. Isn't it obvious that if it didn't work on pass 1, it won't get better on pass 2.

I'd like to see kids get whatever they need, whenever they're ready for it. If that means they are in several different academic levels across their personal curriculum at the same time, so be it. I've got kids in my 7th grade math class that should be in 3rd and I've got some that would thrive in 9th. The fact that they have to suffer through my classroom because of a chronological accident is ludicrous.

Anonymous said...

You can't end social promotion in a two-tiered class society that serves basically two different curriculum, unless you separate the populations, write two standards, and create two schools, where there might have only been one. Testing along with the ever-popular Truth squad makes a district top heavy in administrators - Swollen district office syndrome.

Washington state has unofficially done all of the above by basing their new math standards on the America Achieve standard, created an alternative pipeline for low performing students in order to hide any objectivity, and used NCLB to move funds that were once set aside for lower performing schools (probabilities) to fund high achieving schools (possibilities).

Notice that some communities, now cleansed of minorities, using substandard reform textbooks are now reverting to traditional programs. (Bellevue for example.) I'd be hopping mad and I am.

The latest version of 'incremental' reform wants to pay students and teachers based on performance. Should we bother telling them that a system did exist prior to 1961, where elementary school teachers were paid less than secondary school teachers and minorities and women were paid less to as a result of position-based salary schedule. Should we allow children to decide teacher salaries or what about administrators. There are a myriad of problems that have to be taken into account. (Not going to happen in my lifetime.)

Your lawmakers need a thorough going over on what ethics are all about.