There's a better way than social promotion or retention

May 12, 1998|By Howard Margolis

AT THIS time of year, teachers and parents think about retaining children with academic problems. Those who support retention argue that these children will benefit from repeating a grade. Retention will give the student an opportunity to review the material or mature socially and emotionally. It will motivate the student to do better, to avoid future retention.

Educators, politicians and parents who support "standards" and attack "social promotion" (automatically advancing students from grade to grade, despite poor achievement) vigorously support retention.

They argue that it sends students the clear message that they must master what was taught to advance. In one sense, retention advocates have been very successful -- almost 50 percent of students are retained by grade nine. In another sense they have failed because these children do not improve academically. Moreover, it hurts children and wastes money.

Supporting research

A large body of research has documented the deleterious and counterproductive effects of retention, which negatively affects academic achievement and self-esteem. Retained children view themselves as failures who cannot succeed. They often give up or react to continued frustration in troublesome ways. Retention produces older underachievers, dramatically increasing the probability that they will drop out of school.

The right response to academic problems is neither retention nor social promotion.

It is promotion with intensive, highly personalized, carefully monitored academic instruction that improves students' reading, writing and mathematical skills while directly supporting the instruction these students receive in regular classes. This requires continuous help from highly skilled reading and mathematics specialists who know how to get students to believe in themselves. These teachers need adequate time to work with classroom teachers and small groups of students to personalize instruction.

Remedial intervention may require tutoring or small group instruction after school and over the summer. It absolutely requires intervening when the problem is identified. By February, most first-grade teachers can accurately identify which students will have reading problems.

The remedial interventions described are different from special education. First, all students with academic problems should get these services. Many retained students with academic problems are ineligible for special education. Second, special education teachers often have little education in how to teach remedial reading and math. Third, special education classes are often too large and special education teachers rarely have adequate time to coordinate programs with regular classroom teachers. Similar arguments can be made against "basic skills instruction," from which many of these children have gained little.

Cost is the main argument against providing intensive, focused, thoroughly personalized academic instruction in small groups.

This should not be a strong deterrent if America wants well-adjusted, successful learners and a nation of productive, highly responsible citizens, who value education. Conservatively, it costs about $5,000 a year to retain a student, not to mention, in many cases, direct and related costs for special education, testing, counseling, truancy and crime. Multiple retentions are not uncommon. We waste more than $11 billion a year retaining some 2.3 million students. Over a decade, this costs more than $110 billion.

Money down the drain

These billions would be well spent if they produced significant academic achievement, enhanced self-esteem, lowered dropout rates and created more productive, better-adjusted citizens. But they do not.

Retention exacerbates rather than improves a terrible situation. As a society, we should invest our money in services that improve our children's lives rather than turning them into failures.

Howard Margolis is a professor and coordinator of the Graduate Reading Program at Queens College of the City University of New York and editor of the "Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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