A Real Answer to Social
Social promotion doesn't work. No one knows this better than
teachers, particularly those who find themselves in classrooms
with children who don't have the basic knowledge and skills
they need to do grade-level work. The UFT took an official
stance against this practice long before Mayor Giuliani made
it an issue, much less Mayor Bloomberg.
But teachers also know that while
the politically easy answer—a "get
tough" retention policy—may score political points
for a mayor or chancellor, it doesn't really offer much to
the students who are struggling.
Making third-graders who didn't get it the first time sit
through the same curriculum in the same classroom again has
been tried. The evidence is overwhelming that students who
are simply held back and not provided with enriched opportunities
to learn generally don't make significant academic progress
and are at increased risk of dropping out in later years.
"Conditional" 4th grade. There are very concrete,
common sense ways to end social promotion. Early and dramatic
intervention, as early as pre-kindergarten, is one approach.
Another is the proposal the UFT put forward in response to
the Mayor's plan to establish a "gate" for this year's
3rd graders. Under our plan the system would create "conditional" 4th
grade classes next year for third-graders who score at Level
1—the lowest range—in reading or math.
Such conditional classes would be capped at 15 students instead
of the 28 or more that we currently have in our 4th grade.
The classes would be taught by highly trained teachers and
would provide a specialized curriculum for struggling students.
And instead of giving such students just a few hours a week
or a few months of help, our proposal would give students a
full year of enriched academic and support services.
The instructional program would be tailored for the needs
of students who have not gained basic skills with less structured
approaches. At the same time, the program would also be specific
to the needs of students. For example, it makes no sense to
restrict a child to 3rd grade math or making him repeat 3rd
grade science simply because his English reading skills are
poor. This is particularly important for English language learners
who might be doing better in math than in reading in a language
that is unfamiliar to them.
Ed Koch, who was mayor when the
city first tried its "gates" program
in the 1980s, has praised this approach.
Is intervention—in this or some other form—a
better strategy than retention? The Chicago school system,
after a seven-year experiment with holding students back,
has eased its strict promotion requirements. Why? Because
an independent study of the policy has demonstrated that
retention alone has not improved student performance.
Taking the 4th grade test. Another benefit of the UFT approach
is that the conditional 4th graders would take the state's
4th grade test, making it easier to compare the progress of
this group with their peers. (Under Mayor Bloomberg's plan,
the students who are held back would take the city's 3rd grade
test next year.)
While conditional 4th grade classes should help move large
numbers of children out of the lowest level by the end of the
school year, those students who are still unsuccessful would
be retained in a 4th grade class but with a guarantee that
they will receive additional services. We propose that each
of those children have an Individual Academic Services Plan
similar to the Individual Education Plan that is used for special
education students. They also would receive instruction both
before and after school, along with other assistance promised
by the chancellor.
The UFT offered this proposal as a way of helping children,
and also to quell the cynicism that the process was being rigged
to ensure higher test scores for 4th graders next year when
the Mayor will be seeking re-election.
But we do not think that it is the
only approach that could work. Others have also offered thoughtful
alternatives. The administration, however, is not interested
in listening to any alternatives at all. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg
had to fire two members of his Panel for Educational Policy—and engineer
the firing of a third member by the Staten Island borough president—to
ensure that his plan — and only his plan—got a
Is our approach expensive? It's probably less expensive than
swelling existing 3rd-grade enrollment by 30 percent, which
could be the cost of the Department of Education's proposed
Besides, instruction is supposed
to determine the budget, not vice versa. Serving the needs
of children must be the main concern and driving force behind
any educational policy initiative—not