Detroit bans social promotion

Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools, has banned social promotion “to the outrage of Detroit school board members who called it a political ploy in the midst of a court battle between Bobb and the board over academic control of the district,” reports the Detroit News.

A complete ban on social promotion would affect a whole lot of students.

The district caught national attention in December when its fourth-graders came in last in the nation on the National Assessment of Education Progress with scores that were the lowest recorded in the history of the prestigious exam.

There’s “no uniform or effective strategy” to deal with failing students, says Barbara Byrd-Bennett, DPS emergency academic officer.  Some are held back at least once. Others are moved on without the skills they need. Bobb worries most about eighth graders who aren’t ready for high school.

But retaining students is expensive — and often unhelpful if they simply repeat what didn’t work the year before. Intervening to get struggling students up to speed costs money too. The district is broke as well as broken.

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  1. Don Bemont says:

    It is a little bit odd that the “emergency financial manager” is making the key educational decisions. Maybe the position is not what it sounds to be, but I have seen a trend over my thirty-five years of teaching and fifty years around public schools. For a long time, most of the decisions were made by people with successful classroom experience teaching math, science, social studies, English, etc. In the early 80s, I went through most of the administrative training program myself, and found myself surrounded by people who were predominantly gym teachers, guidance counselors, health teachers and special ed teachers. I found the entire experience unsettling and backed out because the focus seemed so hostile to academic learning. Sure enough, since then, I have witnessed the rise of administrators with minimally academic teaching backgrounds, and, it seems to me, the frequent marginalization of those few administrators who used to teach math, science, social studies, ro English.

    Still more recently, it seems to me more and more frequent that administrators with no teaching experience whatsoever rise to positions where they make educational policy. These people are far more astute in the political process, but invariably see themselves as producing a product, and that product is a positive school report card. To these people, academic learning is just fine, as long as the dinosaurs holding onto it don’t get in the way of publishable results.

    Thus, I find the Detroit article interesting. Bobb is taking the populist view that social promotion is a bad idea and banning it. The board is calling Bobb’s move a political ploy in the midst of a larger battle. My common sense tells me that things are not exactly as they appear in this Detroit News Story.

    Now, if Bobb turns out to be an experienced educator with any kind of history of opposing mindless social promotion, I am very interested and would watch closely to see how his plan works in practice. However, he is striking me as more likely akin to a politician desperately wanting to win an election who suddenly proposes deep tax cuts for political advantage.

  2. In my district, the ban has really been more theoretical than anything, as many children are pushed along anyway.

    The problem is too deeply ingrained. For many years, we have not been allowed to put a grade less than 50 on a report card – in lower grades its 70. In addition, up until a few years ago kids were just pushed along regardless. They’ve gotten used to it.

    Kids are used to being able to be pushed along without doing any real work. To change this will require the kids to have a dose of reality. This means they will have to face real consequences for their actions. The moment they face real consequences, however, parents run downtown to complain. With an administration whose classroom experience is not only far out of date, but pretty much exclusively lower-grade elementary, they generally fold like a deck of cards.

    Instead of making the kids prove that they’ve learned enough to move on, they want 50 reams of paperwork from the teachers to prove that they’ve moved heaven and earth to make the kids pass.

    What’s the result? Kids who expect everything spoon-fed to them. Kids who think they can play around all year and still pass. Not one student in any of my 8th grade classes could tell me what multiplication was without using the word “multiply”.

    To really fix this problem is going to require hard choices, and setting up alternative settings for those kids who are too far behind to be in their classes. This is going to require the district actually being able to stand up to criticism.

  3. I’ve had experience with Barbara Byrd-Bennett, in Cleveland Municipal Schools, which she, and her hand-picked people, ran into the ground. They got their way by bringing in layers of administration, placed them over the incumbent staff, and proceeded to spend like drunkards, on technology (some of which never left the box, and some of which walked out the doors after hours, without any attempt to investigate), on incredibly highly-paid consultants (many of whom delivered sub-standard professional development), and on pacifying union leadership.

    She was an absolute disgrace, and, in the last 3 years of her reign as CEO of the schools, overspent her budget by 100 million dollars.

    And, in the process, student scores fell, not rose (except for one year, which I suspect was either a stastical aberration, or, more likely, heavily massaged data).

    Oh, did I mention that she mis-managed the transportation system to the extent that she had to pay back the state for monies they advanced for non-existent students? I’m talking FAKE – didn’t board the bus, although she said they did. Why she wasn’t audited, and prosecuted, I have no idea.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Downside of retaining kids is that some of them are not particularly sociable and retaining them puts them among smaller and weaker children, making bullying a reasonable way to pass the time.
    I speak as an ex-Safety Boy (remember them?) detailed by playground-monitoring teachers to arrest, rein in, stop, whip, thugs two and three years older than I. WHile they remained at a safe distance.
    That experience set me on the path to learn “self-defense”, aka ju jitsu, aka scientific dirty fighting. So it wasn’t all a waste.
    If you’re retaining kids, you need to separate the anti-social threats.

  5. In my district, the ban has really been more theoretical than anything, as many children are pushed along anyway.

    Yep. If a student works in class and does homework, he or she is going to pass. Teachers grade compliance, not performance.

    And there are good reasons for doing so, unfortunately.

  6. Four years ago I had a large group of kids who were making no attempt to be successful. I did a little homework and compiled their grades in a chart (wish I had known Excel back then) which covered thier sixth and 2/3s of their severnth grade year.

    I had 19 students (out of 181) who had failed every single class throughout the sixth grade and the first two trimesters of seventh grade. Over a third of the students had failed three or more (out of six) classes per report card for the period. Over half of the students had D’s or lower in three or more classes for the period.

    All of these students should have candidates for retention. However they knew there was no chance of us retaining them.

    And if we had retained them…where would we have put all of them?

  7. Lindsay H. says:

    I have mixed feeling on the retention of students. It seems that most of the research I have read or heard does not show that retaining a child benefits them more than harms them. Being held back can be extremely traumatizing to a student. At what point do we sacrifice a child’s self esteem for their ability to master the standards? I think that retention should be the last resort after all other options are exhausted. I am sure more students than I know have been held back before being enrolled in intervention programs and other helpful resources.


  1. […] Detroit bans social promotion Joanne Jacobs: Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of Detroit Public schools, has banned social promotion “to the outrage of Detroit school board members who called it a political ploy in the midst of a court battle between Bobb and the board over academic control of the district,” reports the Detroit News. […]