Hold Students Back? Hold On.

September 6th, 2012

Category: News

A recent opinion in The News Journal caught my eye, talking about the virtues of holding students back early on (in the 3rd grade) and opining that this will ultimately make them more successful in school.

As a former 2nd grade teacher, my natural instinct in discussing this issue is to approach with caution. I agree with the article that social promotion is an important topic—but it’s a complicated one, and far more nuanced than a one-size-fits-all policy would suggest. The editorial board states that holding students back makes them “less likely to be held back again” whereas “evidence shows that [social promotion] is more likely setting up those students for failure.” Since I’m a data-focused person, I took a look at these statements.

The North Central Regional Education Laboratory has an article that cites a number of studies that talk about the detrimental effects of social promotion. And a piece published in 2007 compared the reading performance of students who had been held back compared to their socially promoted peers, finding slight gains in the first year after retention, and substantial gains in the second. So it seems the claim has support.

But hold on—it seems that’s only one side of the picture. This site provides an overview of the discussion, citing a number of articles that discuss the negative social and emotional effects of student retention. And a research series examining Chicago’s push to end social promotion in the late 1990s finds not only issues with implementation, but states in its final article: “Did retaining these low-achieving students help? The answer to this question is definitely no.”  In the present state of cash-strapped school systems across the country, the estimated $10,000 per student that retention costs is a high price to pay if a strategy isn’t going to work.

As you dig further, it seems that in reality the data on the effects of “retention” or “social promotion” as a whole are decidedly mixed. As is too often the case in education issues, the problem is far more complex than can be boiled down into a sound bite, and much less black and white than politicians such as Gov. Kasich (who was quoted in the editorial) would like. Forcing students to spend another year learning the same material fails just as poorly as pushing students ahead without a plan for intense remediation and support. Every student is different, and the success of a policy depends on its implementation and the amount of support the student gets. (As a side note, it’ll be interesting to see how personalized learning and efforts like School of One play into all of this…but that’s a topic for another time).

My experience? I held back some students and socially promoted others. In either case, an entire team of us (including parents and oftentimes the student) developed a plan for success that included summer remediation and intensive support during the following school year. Instead of a hard and fast policy, we looked holistically at the progress of the student through the year, the social maturity of the student, and a host of other factors—including the opinion of the parents, who were involved in the process from the beginning.  Which strategy worked better in the end? Both.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about social promotion?

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Brian Yin




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