By Hilary Masell Oswald
Chicago Parent file photo Retention affords students the chance to review subjects they have not yet mastered and to graduate with a diploma that means something.
How we educate our children is among the hottest topics in the nation. Parents and politicians, taxpayers and teachers all have opinions about what works and what doesn't.
How we decide whether we've done a good job-or a good enough job-educating our children is an even hotter issue, and it ran screaming back into the spotlight this spring when the New York City Department of Education announced that third-graders in the city's public schools will no longer pass to the next grade unless they demonstrate proficient math and reading skills on a standardized test. The department put a stop to the practice of passing students on to the next grade level even if they haven't mastered grade-level curriculum-a policy known as social promotion.
The announcement and the raucous debates it elicited were reminiscent of a 1996 announcement by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. That was when he reintroduced a retention policy into the Chicago Public Schools. Like New York's, Chicago's retention policy is tied to standardized test scores. Students in third, sixth and eighth grades must attain a minimum score on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills before they may move on to the next grade. Students who fail to meet the minimum requirements participate in a special summer school program called Summer Bridge unless they are granted a waiver to go onto the next grade. Students who attend the program then take the test again at the end of the summer. If they pass the test on the second attempt, they move on to the next grade; if not, they repeat their grade.
Sounds simple, right? Score well enough on the test, go to the next grade. Fail to score well enough, repeat the subject until it's mastered.
The problems Policy-makers and educators who support retention say socially promoting students lets educators off the hook. If students pass from one grade to the next without meeting academic standards, education becomes nothing more than a crapshoot: some win, some lose, no matter how you play the game. No one is actually responsible for the failing student because there aren't any failing students, and by the time a student graduates from high school-the inevitable outcome-the student might not have the basic skills he needs to get a job or go to college. Furthermore, in an increasingly global market, the United States cannot afford to promote students blindly from one grade to the next; Americans will cease to be strategic competitors in the private and public sectors.
At John F. Eberhart Elementary School in Chicago, where 92 percent of students are Hispanic and 35 percent are enrolled in the school's bilingual program, Principal Joyce Jager supports retaining students, especially at an early age. "If we can identify students who need help early in first grade, we can save them a lot of trouble in the long run by retaining them and offering them more language instruction," she explains.
On the other side of the fence are educators and policymakers who suggest that retaining students only discourages them. A large body of national research suggests that retained students are more likely to drop out of school than similarly low-performing students who are promoted. Retention-or simply "flunking," as students call it-only sharpens a child's aversion to school.
Elaine Allensworth, associate director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, highlighted results of Consortium research into retention in the Chicago public schools. "Students who were retained in third grade showed slight academic gains over low-performing students who were promoted. But those gains diminished as the students got older. And students retained in sixth grade did not make as much academic progress repeating sixth grade as low-performing students who were promoted to seventh grade. Retention just isn't the solution."
The politics The issue of whether to retain a student gets especially tricky when political capital is involved. And it's almost always involved.
Allensworth admitted that retention is politically popular right now, though several recent changes to the Chicago Public School policy have eased the severity of the guidelines. In March, the Board passed amendments to its academic promotion policy. Now, students who meet minimum requirements in reading but not in math can pass to the next grade. It also focuses on preventative measures that could reduce the number retained students, including full-day kindergarten and literacy assessments for students in kindergarten through third grade.
The changes came on the heels of Allensworth's study and a corresponding study by the Consortium, both of which suggest that retention is ineffective educationally and harmful to students' motivation. In response, Mayor Daley adamantly discounted the policy of social promotion: "You would not allow anyone to socially promote your child, but [you'd] do it for other children. Make them feel better. Pretend they're really in high school when they are really not. They're not going to get a job; they're not going to college. Some way, we have to say that social promotion to make children feel better is not good. We should basically put new programs together. That is the answer, not to socially promote children."
Ray Legler, senior program associate at the Learning Point Associates in Naperville, noted that funding often dictates whether proposed "new programs" actually take off, especially in urban areas. The state of Illinois primarily funds schools with property taxes, and the percentage of state funding that goes to schools is among the lowest in the country.
Jager faces an offshoot of the funding problem daily: overcrowding. More than 1,800 students are enrolled in Eberhart, which leaves no room for pre-kindergarten. There are a few private pre-kindergarten programs in the area, but parents must pay tuition for most of them. Decades of research show that early childhood education-learning that happens before a child's fifth birthday-increases the likelihood that a student will succeed academically. The Catch-22 is money: families who live in urban areas where overcrowding in schools is a problem often do not have the income to send children to pre-K programs, and students in high poverty areas are retained more often than students in affluent areas. If these students had access to early childhood educational programs, research suggests that many of them could succeed academically.
The potential Fear not: The debate, though thorny, does yield good fruit. It has pushed some educators and policymakers to find solutions that work.
At Eberhart Elementary, educators identify kindergartners who are not ready to begin first grade. These students are placed in a class of no more than 20 students with a teacher and a full-time aid. They study a transitional curriculum, which reviews some concepts from kindergarten and some first grade curriculum. At the end of the year, the teacher can either promote the students to second grade or to a regular first-grade classroom. Last year, 14 students went on to second grade and five enrolled in first grade. "Early intervention is key," says Jager. "If you have a strong foundation, you can build necessary skills. We want our kids to have a strong foundation."
Dr. Fred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University, suggests a similar solution. "We should design the retention year differently," he explains. Third-graders who need to repeat the third grade curriculum should spend the fall semester catching up on missed skills and learning some fourth-grade material. By January, many of them could join their fourth-grade peers. Why don't schools try this schedule? "Logistically, it would be difficult. People tend to think about school in a very specific, rigid way. We need to think differently about schools-how they work, when, and in whose best interest."
Legler agrees. He envisions a school where parents observe in the classroom, teachers receive ongoing training from only the finest sources, the curriculum is challenging and teachers use a wide variety of teaching strategies for the benefit of all kinds of learners. Curriculum grows from mounds of scientifically-based research, not from tradition and dusty lesson plans and adults make decisions based on what's best for the kids, not what's easiest or least expensive.
And solutions extend to the home, where parents can encourage their children's learning in simple ways: Find out what children will study; ask about what they learned (even if they mutter "nothin" every time you ask); tell them you think their education is very important; make sure they get to school every day on time, and address budding problems early in the school year. Researchers and teachers agree that everyone has a responsibility to combat the problem of the failing student.
How do we know if we've done a good enough job educating our children? Perhaps we will know the answer when the question disappears, when the problem of the failing student becomes a history lesson in vigorous, successful classrooms across the country.
The Medill News Service also contributed to this article. Hilary Masell Oswald is a freelance writer living in Naperville.