As long as it takes

Social promotion doesn’t work, writes Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia, in the New York Times. Neither does flunking students. “Research on the subject is clear: neither social promotion nor holding back students works,” Levine writes. “Leaving students back increases their dropout rate, while using the same methods to teach them the subjects they failed to master the first time does not help them progress. Socially promoted students, meanwhile, are unable to learn more advanced material in the next grade and are more likely to become disruptive, diminishing their classmates’ ability to learn as well.” He advocates flexibility.

There are three steps the school system could take that might quell this fruitless debate and help our children. First, starting from the first days in a classroom, schools could assess all students’ skills – moving ahead students who are beyond their grade level and providing additional instruction to students who are behind. Second, the system could create transitional classes between grades. Thus, the student who would ordinarily be left back in third grade, say, would move into an intermediary third-fourth grade in which the focus would be on remediation in areas of weakness and building on subjects already mastered, instead of repeating the entire grade. Third, the school system could extend the school day or academic year for all students, allowing advanced students to take enrichment classes and lagging students to do additional work in areas in which they learn more slowly.

If we abandon grouping students by age and grade, fast learners might finish school in 10 years; slow learners might need 14 years.

Education Gadfly likes the idea, but says it needs to be backed by “high standards, rigorous assessment, and strict results-driven accountability.”

About Joanne

Comments

  1. A problem with the proposal is that it still puts students into grades. Suppose a fifth grader is beyond his grade in English but a little slower (actually at fifth grade) in mathematics, should he move up? I know a grown man (late 40s-50ish) who was really good at math as a child, got placed in an accelerated/honors track, felt like an idiot in many of his courses, and didn’t learn as much as he could have because he was depressed. Trading a one-size-fits-all for a one-size-fits-most won’t solve all problems.

    But it’s a good start.

  2. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would end up with an individualized curriculum for each child, which would be very good if they could improve teaching efficiency at the same time so that costs don’t go up.

    Also, the idea of keeping slow learners longer in the system disturbs me. Since I doubt the students who stay longer would be the ones who love learning, it sounds too much like a prison sentence with extra time added if something goes wrong.

  3. The paradigm on which the whole system seems to be designed is assembly line production, but a rather strange variant of same. If a loose bolt is put in the car by mistake at station #29, usually the car goes all the way through and is delivered that way to a customer (since the management has decided that quality inspectors are “sinful,” to use a recent phrase.) But sometimes, the loose bolt is identified, so they just pull the car off the line and scrap it…Isn’t that what the alternatives of “social promotion” and “left back” amount to in practice?

  4. When I was a child, we were stationed in Teheran, Iran, and my mother was a teacher there in a international school. The students in grades 1-3 were grouped according to their command of the english language, not by age. The students had to be fluent before they could go on to the 4th grade, so they felt that this was the best way to teach them, and it worked. I as a teacher think ages are irrelevant – what matters is how well the students master the material.

  5. Arthur Levine wrote:

    “Leaving students back increases their dropout rate, while using the same methods to teach them the subjects they failed to master the first time does not help them progress.”

    …Does he really think that teaching these kids a different way will help? Didn’t the original teacher use various methods to teach the kids? Could it be that the student just needs a swift kick in the rear? If a student has real cognitive difficulties that is a different issue. Oh, and let’s not talk about teacher competence.

    “Socially promoted students, meanwhile, are unable to learn more advanced material in the next grade and are more likely to become disruptive, diminishing their classmates’ ability to learn as well.”

    …Wow! Major revelation! Well, there goes the spiraling the curriculum theory down the tubes.

    “Thus, the student who would ordinarily be left back in third grade, say, would move into an intermediary third-fourth grade in which the focus would be on remediation in areas of weakness and building on subjects already mastered, instead of repeating the entire grade.”

    …Taught using different methods, of course. What if different kids in this in-between class need different, different methods? Apparently, the original teacher couldn’t teach using different methods, but the in-between class teacher can. It sounds like these in-between classes are custom made for for each child’s problem. And, just where do these in-between teachers come from and how do they get paid? OK, so now we have K-8 times two number of grades. What if a student flunks grade 3 1/2? The other kids will think he/she is only a half-flunker. Of course, being only a half-flunker will decrease the dropout rate. Perhaps they could go into grade 3 3/4.

    “Third, the school system could extend the school day or academic year for all students, allowing advanced students to take enrichment classes and lagging students to do additional work in areas in which they learn more slowly.”

    …Great! Don’t deal with why schools can’t get students to meet very minimal NAEP standards when they have the kids for 6+ hours a day for 180 days a year. More time! More money! Extended academic year for all students! Enrichment, of course, not curriculum acceleration. I can just see the above average students writhing in agony. Wait! This also sends the mixed-ability groupings ideology down the tube. The lagging students are in a separate group working more sloooooowly. Apparently not with different methods, just sloooooowly. Wow! Has he really thought through all of the implications? It’s amazing what happens when progressive teaching ideologies run smack-dab into the brick wall of reality and common sense.

    …This is all just so stupid. Hasn’t he ever heard about teaching flexibility, high standards and summer school? Finally, after all these years, the president of Teachers College at Columbia is forced to address the huge and blatently obvious problem of social promotion. So, what does he do? He comes up with a cockamamie idea to complicate the process and make school much more difficult than it has to be. School is not that complicated!!!!! He is the president of Teachers College at Columbia and this is the best he can do? Incredible!

  6. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “…which would be very good if they could improve teaching efficiency at the same time so that costs don’t go up.”

    The essence of conservatives. We have a serious problem which needs to be solved by any means short of actual spending.

  7. No Richard, it’s called being creative with the resources you have. People in the real world do it all the time, and it’s amazing what people can do if they apply themselves.

    The essence of bureaucrats. We get offended by any suggestion that doesn’t involve milking taxpayers even more.

  8. Haven’t Montessori schools been tailoring individual instruction for many years, with great success? I realize that most are targeted at younger grades, but I know that they do have some high schools. These and charter schools (and some brave public schools like the 90-90-90 one Joanne described below) show that there are ways to be successful, most of them not involving throwing tons more money at an already unsuccessful system (that’s known as the “escalating commitment” bias), or following untested and questionable theories (aka “prior hypothesis” bias) even in the face of strong evidence that they don’t work!

  9. “Research on the subject is clear: neither social promotion nor holding back students works,” Levine writes. “Leaving students back increases their dropout rate, while using the same methods to teach them the subjects they failed to master the first time does not help them progress. ”

    Given the choice, I’d much rather they drop out than destroy (what’s left of) the value of a high school diploma. If they can’t or won’t master the work, they shouldn’t pass. Period. If they drop out, they’re not going to do any worse over the long run than they would if they were given diplomas… if people who should have dropped out get diplomas, then the diploma will signify only a dropout-level of achievement and competence, so these people will be in the same boat either way. It’s everyone else that’s willing and able to actually earn a diploma that’s going to get screwed – they’ll end up with a worthless piece of paper, and they’ll be stuck depending on Mommy and Daddy to support them for several years of their adult lives while they get a real education and pursue a real degree that actually has some value in the marketplace.

  10. mike from oregon says:

    Richard –

    Where is the proof that throwing more money at the problem will solve it? Washington D.C. spends in excess of $10,000 per child (closer to $13,000) and they have some of the worst test scores in the nation.

    Steve’s comments are both funny (“What if a student flunks grade 3 1/2? The other kids will think he/she is only a half-flunker.”) but items to think about. Charter schools (on average) do as well or better than the “typical” public school and they do it for less money. Read a couple articles up about the charter schools in Buffalo. Can you explain to me why the public schools couldn’t/shouldn’t be like the charter schools? The charter schools show an entirely different attitude towards the kids and learning, the public schools could learn something from that, but won’t; and the charter schools do it for less money.

    Money isn’t always the answer. You need to see what is being spent, but don’t accept that more of it will cure the problem.

  11. Zippy The Pinhead says:

    My wife was educated in Korea, through her BA degree, and explained to me that past standard operating procedure (we don’t know about current practice– there have been changes made to the educational system there in the intervening years) was that there was no repetition of courses. Students in Korean K-12 schools were given the equivalent of our letter grades– A,B,C,D and F– and additionally they were ranked within their school/grade/class– but a student who received an unsatisfactory grade would not repeat a course. They would be forced to advance to the next grade along with everyone else.

    Since my wife was a high achiever as a K-12 student, she had no direct experience with failing a course and being forced to advance regardless.

    Since Korean students routinely kick American student’s asses in all manner of international comparisons, there has to be something worth considering in their approach. I’m not sure how this “yeah, you flunked freshman algebra, but you’re sitting for algebra II anyway…” ingredient figures into their successful recipe, but it apparently does figure.