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APRIL 2004

A Real Answer to Social Promotion
by Randi Weingarten, President, UFT

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 hearing.

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 approach.

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 politics.#



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