On the New York Times op-ed page, teacher Marlene Heath eloquently defends Chicago’s policy of holding back students who can’t read. Heath, now a reading specialist at an all-poverty school on the South Side, was skeptical when Mayor Richard Daley ended social promotion in 1995. Now she says it’s been a boon to students and teachers.
Only 26 percent of our elementary students were able to meet national norms on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in reading in 1995. That number is now 41 percent. At Beethoven (School) alone, reading comprehension jumped to 46 percent last year from 22 percent in 1997.
About 48 percent of Chicago public school students tested in the lowest quarter nationally before social promotion ended. Now that number is half of what it was. The high school drop-out rate, which was nearly 17 percent in 1995, is now at 13 percent, while the graduation rate has steadily climbed.
But the students who have come through my classrooms over the last 14 years offer the most convincing evidence that retention is one of the best things we can do for a child who needs that extra year to develop literacy skills. I began teaching sixth graders in 1992, and shortly after social promotion ended, I began to see students who were much better prepared. This new caliber of students allowed me to do what I should have been able to do all along Ñ teach sixth-grade-level work to all my students. That hadn’t been possible with the two or three nonreaders who had passed each year through my class before.
Students who can’t read fluently become deeply frustrated. Not only do they drop out, they can ruin the learning environment for other students.