During my time, my district’s retention policy has changed or been rethought every year. Some years, failing students are kept behind. Other years, all students are promoted regardless of their academic success or effort. I understand the dilemma. The research on retention suggests that flunking failing kids does not help their long-term academic success. Whether we promote these students or fail them, they tend to do badly in school and in later life. Overall, the best outcomes result from social promotion, from students sent on despite their lack of learning. Certainly, social promotion is easier on teachers. If Napoleon did not listen the first time he was in seventh grade, Napoleon hardly ever becomes raptly attentive the next time around. If anything, he tunes out. He’s heard that Civil War rap before and he wasn’t particularly interested last year, either. Having been separated from his peers, Napoleon may also become a behavioral handful as he shows off, trying to capture the attention and admiration of possible new friends and lunch partners. For that matter, Napoleon may have always been a behavioral handful. Some kids fail because they don’t understand the material but, in my experience, most fail because behaviors prevent them from mastering that material. Fail is too neutral a word, too. True fact: One Napoleon I inherited remembered so little of his social studies from the year before, that he did not know who had won the Civil War.
I’m sorry if I’m painting a bleak picture and exceptions exist. I have taught a couple of them, although they represent a tiny minority of the retained students I have known. One that will stay with me forever was a boy who failed eighth grade at a time when failing students from the previous year were forced to repeat the first semester of eighth grade and were then allowed to start to high school. He was told he needed at least straight C grades to go on to high school. He got his Cs but the policy shifted under him. The administration decided not to promote students midyear. I remember his angry and frustrated quote: “I did my part. I got Cs. If they had told me to get B s, I would’ve got Bs!” He could have gotten those Bs too — if he had seen a reason to do so.
Eduhonesty: We recently received what appears to be the year’s retention policy. No one will be held back. Win or lose, pass or fail, students will be promoted. The emails on the topic referred to studies showing that promotion better benefits the promoted. I won’t disagree with the research, but I believe I disagree with the policy. I am going to lay out my reasons in a separate, following post because my reasons don’t address the failure research. That research probably accurately reflects the prospects for long-term success for the socially promoted. I want to explore another question.
Specifically, ignoring the advantages to the socially promoted, how does social promotion affect everybody else in our picture?