Should They Stay or Should They Go?
Finding alternatives to holding kids back— or sending them on unprepared
BY STEFENE RUSSELL
Illustrations by Donough O’Malley
What do you do with a struggling kid? In the past, teachers have held them back—or wishfully pushed them forward. But neither is ideal. Retention and social promotion have both been common and controversial for years. The first strives to help kids catch up academically,but often at a social or emotional cost. The second keeps kids with their peer group, but may backfire as they reach higher grades—if a student can’t read well, for instance, it affects performance in other subjects.
The St. Louis Public Schools initiated a new program to help prevent retention this past September. “We are spending approximately $3 million to $4 million [annually] on tutors, for all of our lowest-achieving schools,” says Kelvin Adams, the district’s superintendent.“It’s roughly 18 to 25 schools, with students in grades 3 through 8, and also some high-school students. They are receiving tutoring every single day within the structure of the school… We take them out of class and provide them with 30to 45 minutes of tutoring in the subject they are struggling with.”
Adams says educators generally agree that it doesn’t make sense to have a child retake a year’s worth of classes when he or she is only struggling in one area. The district’s new program includes intervention programs that provide “direct support for kids and where their weaknesses are,” he says. “It might be a group of three or four kids with a teacher; it might mean tutoring. It’s also providing parents with tools for helping kids with homework… It’s a lot more targeted.” Classes are also being reworked, so that third-graders reading at a first-grade level can be grouped together and work with a particular teacher.
Elizabeth Kolb Cunningham, director of the North Carolina New Teacher Support Program, looked at research on retention and social promotion for her state’s Educational Research Council. “It’s a complex issue, and there is not a perfect answer,” she says. “People previously tended to take a hard line on their analysis, that it had to be either retention or social promotion, but neither of those things has been best for children or for schools. We wanted to know, what’s the other way?”
One thing that surprised her was that the majority of the retentions were happening early—which research found to be counterproductive. “For kindergarteners and first-graders, it’s really an emotional issue,” she says. “It is hard enough to do all that is required to adjust to the different learning environment of school.” Learning how to become part of a peer group can be even harder. “Then, once they finally start to get it, taking them out of that group and making them repeat that is usually devastating, educationally and emotionally.”
This is why North Carolina schools decided not to retain kids prior to third grade. They also try to identify struggling students long before school lets out in May. Such kids might attend a summer program with smaller class sizes and receive one-on-one time with a teacher to help them catch up. Retention is only used as a last resort.
Like Kolb Cunningham, Adams says the key is for educators to identify problems early on. “If I know in September that there are some issues, a parent needs to know and [we need to] provide additional support,” Adams says, “whether that’s tutoring, counseling, or whatever the case may be. I don’t have a problem with keeping the kid back if it solves a specific problem. I’m just not sure it solves the problem.”