Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Retention is a terrible punishment

March 7
Remember that big kid in fifth grade who was 12 years old and used to beat up all the 10 year olds? One of the many dumb ideas that keeps being reborn as the solution to the problems of schooling is that non-achieving kids should be retained in the same grade for an additional year or years.
The latest rendition is the law being perpetrated in Arizona and many other states which condemns children who  haven't met the criteria for reading achievement to repeat third grade until they do.
One of the earliest educational research studies done in 1909 by Ayres was called "Laggards in our Schools" . It grew out of concern for the cost of keeping children in the same grade sometimes for years. Since then many studies have shown that punishing non-achievers by making them stay in the same grade causes more problems than it solves.
Among the problems of retaining kids is the bullying by sullen, over-age over size kids who pick on little classmates in response to their own humiliation.

David Berliner pointed out in an interview on NPR this week that the retainees may do a bit better on tests because they are a year older but the money spent on keeping them in the same grade could be better spent on doing something different for them instead of having them repeat what didn't work the year before.
The dumb idea is often defended against the concept of social promotion- keeping students with their age group through school. We need to understand that as kids grow older their differences in every sense do not decrease they increase.
One misconception so common it is laughable is that all kids showed be "working at grade level". Grade level is an artifact of norm reference testing. It is the average score reached by all children in a given grade taking the test. So by definition half of all kids are above and half are below grade l.
Schools need to deal with this diversity.  Dewey said it clearly : we can make the kids adjust to school . Or we can adjust the school to them.  As a teacher I knew I couldn't win them all- some kids have real problems schools can't solve alone. But every failure was my failure too. What is the point of punishing kids for not learning? Even worse is punishing inner city kids who have never had one teacher for a whole year for the failures of their system. Or the smart kids who do ok on the tests but don't do the dumb work sheets and get failing grades.
 And retention is the a terrible punishment. It humiliates. A nine year old who reads at the level of some six year olds is still bigger, more physically developed, and with more mature interests. He or she will do better with age peers. The research has consistently shown that.
This is one more example of not honoring the knowledge of professionals and imposing political decisions on both professional teachers and unfortunate students.
Let's make the politicians wear the dunce caps for another bad old idea

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