Promotion or failure?

The Education Beat

Research: A Hopkins sociologist's longtime study of students suggests the best alternative to grade retention is better teaching.

August 18, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

KARL ALEXANDER'S phone started ringing the morning after President Clinton, in his 1998 State of the Union message, proposed ending "social promotion." It's still ringing, says Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who knows more than the average bear about what happens to kids when they are held back in school.

He and his colleagues have been studying 790 Baltimore youngsters since they entered the first grade in 1982. They're now 23 years old. Many have graduated from high school and college. Some are dropouts. Some are successful, some in prison.

Alexander and his partner, Doris Entwisle, were going to wrap up the research in a few years. Now, he says, "I guess it's my life's work." The work also has produced a wealth of data on such things as grade retention and the "summer slide" -- the decline in achievement among children who get little intellectual stimulation over the summer vacation.

On social promotion and grade retention, Alexander is of two minds. His research shows that repeaters do show improvement, but repeating a grade doesn't bring a child up to grade level. "It's some help, but it's not a cure. It breaks the free fall."

Supporters of grade retention have used Alexander's study to argue for an end to social promotion in Texas, Chicago and elsewhere. But there's a down side. Nearly two-thirds of Alexander's repeaters eventually dropped out of school. And 95 percent of his double repeaters were dropouts.

"Retention might help some kids sometimes," says Alexander, "but if it's a choice between retention and social promotion, I'd opt for neither. I'd rather see a third remedy for school failure, such as well-conceived summer school, tutoring, after-school programs."

In other words, a good way to prevent failure is to do a better job of teaching.

Few private colleges in Md. prove bargains

With one exception, private colleges in Maryland aren't much of a bargain, if we are to believe a new survey in Kiplinger's magazine.

The personal finance publication, in its September issue, lists the 100 American private colleges and universities that are "gems" for "parents who want excellence for their children but who also care how much it costs."

Of Maryland schools, only Johns Hopkins University makes the list in 17th place. Richly endowed Rice University in Houston is first.

One reason other Maryland colleges aren't noted may be that the magazine started with 400 schools (of 1,600) rated "competitive" by Peterson's, a publisher of college guides. Then Kiplinger's factors in financial data such as tuition and financial aid to determine whether the school's a bargain, but overall, quality measures still count twice as heavily as financial data.

Charter school movement advancing westward

From time to time, I've brought you up to date on Education Alternatives Inc., the company that made Baltimore the epicenter of the school privatization movement for three years in the mid-1990s.

There was another sighting on Page 1 of the Wall Street Journal last Friday. The company isn't EAI anymore; it's now the TesseracT Group Inc., and it's moved from Minneapolis to Phoenix, where it's mining the charter school movement in high-growth states with friendly charter laws.

The irrepressible John Golle, 55, is still at the helm. He's quoted in the Journal article as saying test scores in Baltimore were manipulated by teacher union members. A Merrill Lynch analyst who's always been bullish on EAI says Golle can take credit for "condition[ing] the marketplace" for companies seeking new ways to operate schools.

Keep nominations coming for educator of century

My request last week for nominations for Maryland educator of the century generated about two dozen suggestions, half of those seconding my suggestion of Wilmer A. Dehuff or Philip H. Edwards, longtime principals of Poly and City, respectively.

Several others associated with those two great Baltimore institutions also were nominated, as was Walter H. Davis, 31-year principal of Havre de Grace High School.

A touching entry came from Wilson Watson, a professor at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. Watson nominated a former teacher, Frances Shores Meginnis, who taught English at Towson High School in the 1950s. "As I look back on my 40 years of teaching ," Watson wrote, "I thank Frances Shores Meginnis for inspiring me to seek and demand excellence."

My nomination this week is Benjamin Quarles, perhaps Morgan State University's most illustrious scholar. Quarles, who was born four years into the century and died four years before its end, was the authority on Frederick Douglass. He lived quietly in Lauraville and humbly attributed his success to "being in the right place at the right time."

Nominations remain open.

Pub Date: 8/18/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.