Social Promotion vs. Retention: What do you think?
This question came up in the comments on our last post, on Twitter, and elsewhere. It’s a tough one, and the research appears mixed (though I’m not as well-versed on this as I’d like to be– if you have a better handle on it, please weigh in!).
On the one hand, there is a strong relationship between retention and poor student outcomes (persistent low performance, dropping out, etc.). On the other hand, the idea of moving students forward when they haven’t mastered the skills we’ve decided they need in the next grade seems counterintuitive. Aren’t we just setting them up for failure?
On some other crazy third hand (or foot? Can we use our feet when there are more than two sides to a story? ;)), isn’t this an unavoidable problem when our whole system revolves around how old students are, rather than what they know and can do? (Is that the problem we should be addressing, instead of batting this one back and forth?) Or to add a fourth limb– is it reasonable to have such rigid expectations of what students will be able to do in a specific, usually very small, time frame? And is it fair when we ask so much more of kids today, at a younger age, than what was expected of students in prior generations? (I still have all the binders I stuffed with the 5th grade standards for literacy and math alone, and standing vertically as they do on my shelf, they’re wider than I am. That’s a lot for a ten-year-old…)
One other piece: what about the social and emotional considerations that weigh on this decision? Emotional states affect cognition, and negative emotions make thinking and learning much harder. Though it gets left out of the discussion these days when we focus more heavily on strict measures of achievement, one key assumption (typically correct) that favors social promotion is that it is demoralizing and stigmatizing for low-performing students to be “left behind” their peers. However, I’d imagine it’s also pretty demoralizing and overwhelming to feel behind all the time, too. And even when I think about alternatives where students advance through different levels based on their mastery of the standards rather than advancing strictly by age, I still imagine that the same stigma that applies to being held back a grade may affect those students who don’t move through the levels as quickly as others. (This is currently being tried in the Adams 50 school district here in Colorado; can any teachers or observers there talk about how that’s being handled? What kinds of school culture or community-building efforts, if any, have been implemented alongside these reforms?)
What do you think? Bring your opinions, experiences and research citations in the comments!