These days, many classes combine students with wildly varying levels of achievement and English fluency; several may have disabilities that affect their learning. Teachers are supposed to reach everyone. If they don’t, the kids who didn’t learn will be passed on anyhow.
Social promotion is caused by an out-of-date allegiance to grouping students by age, writes Dennis Doyle in the LA Times. Better to group students by performance, he writes.
The child who is held back feels diminished and unsuccessful, but the child promoted beyond his ability is sure to be more frustrated than ever. Both sides of the social promotion debate are losers because they take for granted the antique process of age grouping.
As it is, a full chronological year separates the youngest from the oldest student in each grade, and the developmental difference is often much greater. Nothing is more frustrating to both teachers and students than trying to bridge a huge achievement gap within a single classroom.
The solution is genuinely performance-based instructional grouping, a format that schools must master in the 21st century. In performance-based schools, students would be held to high academic standards and would work to achieve them for as long — or as little time — as it took. Indeed, that is the de facto model in high school and college. A student takes Spanish 1 until it’s mastered, then moves on to Spanish 2.
One of the strengths of the Success for All reading program is that students are grouped by their reading performance, not by their age. I visited a school that created a beginning reading group made up of fourth and fifth graders who’d been promoted without learning to read.
Update: In today’s New York Times, Michael Winerip writes about an improving school that groups student by performance for reading classes.
(Principal Eileen) Castle is constantly adjusting to make her school better. She created a 90-minute morning reading period with children assigned to classes by reading ability, rather than by grade. So Vicki Pellegrino’s third-grade reading level class has second, third, fourth and fifth graders. It means a teacher can spend the entire 90 minutes working on the same material with everyone, rather than break her class into three reading ability groups and give each group just 30 minutes of her time.
It’s less common to group students by performance in math, but I know a multi-ethnic school that does that with great success. The principal lives in fear he’ll be accused of tracking students.