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JULY 2004

The Retention of 11,000 third Graders
By Rosalie Friend, Ph.D.

The announcement from the Department of Education that 11,000 third graders will not be able to progress to fourth grade is troubling. The very low scores these youngsters earned on standardized tests seem to indicate that they have not mastered third grade skills. Still, a recent comprehensive study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research confirms earlier findings that repeating a grade does not enable struggling learners to catch up with their peers. Not surprisingly, social promotion does not help struggling learners either. The idea of contrasting these two ineffective approaches may be an example of naïve reasoning i.e., a false dichotomy, or it may be intended to befuddle the public while the city improves fourth grade test scores by removing weak students rather than helping them learn.

If social promotion doesn’t work and grade retention doesn’t work, what can we do? Ask any well-to-do parent whose children are struggling in school. Get individual tutoring. Get counseling if the academic problems are due to emotional problems. Provide a school with smaller classes, more individual attention, and special remediation for the type of problems the child has. We know how to help children learn, but so far our society has been reluctant to provide this help to children of modest means.

Studies comparing high needs schools to low needs schools find striking contrasts. Many children enter schools in low-income areas with significantly lower vocabularies, limited background knowledge, and little familiarity with books. These schools typically have older textbooks, smaller class libraries, teachers with lower credentials and less experience, fewer opportunities for art, music and other enrichment, fewer class trips, etc. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity just proved in court that New York State was under-funding schools in New York City and other high needs districts.

Money owed by the state and the money that the Department of Education intends to use to hold back innocent third graders, could be used to do many things that have been shown to improve children’s learning. By paying competitive salaries the city could get more highly trained teachers. By reducing class size and providing professional development, the city could enable teachers to adapt instruction to children’s individual needs. By providing rich school libraries and classroom libraries the city could help teachers involve children in learning to read. By providing conflict resolution programs, schools can reduce interpersonal tensions that make it difficult for children to learn. These resources are taken for granted in prosperous communities, which achieve higher test scores than most inner city schools.

Two specific programs have been found to be very successful in boosting the achievement of young children. One is Head Start, a comprehensive preschool program for children of limited economic means set up by the federal government. The other is Reading Recovery, an intensive tutoring program in which very highly trained teachers give individual instruction to struggling first graders. Why aren’t these proven programs provided for all who need them?

Teaching is very complex work. Children come to schools with different background knowledge, goals, temperaments, and values. False dichotomies oversimplify many aspects of education. Phonics or reading comprehension—children need both. Math calculations or understanding—children need both. Transmitting the knowledge and values of our society or developing each child’s individual abilities—children need both. Direct instruction led by the teacher or discovery and student collaboration—children need both. In addition, society now demands that the schools teach critical thinking and problem solving. This is much harder than what we experienced as children; memorization and obedience were good enough for us.

Other changes in society make things harder for schools and students too. The change from extended or nuclear families to unmarried parents, divorced parents, single parent families, and remixed families can make growing up harder for children. Working parents have less time to supervise children and help with homework, or even provide emotional support. Parents who cannot find work are often anxious and may not be able to give their children the help they need. Children in foster care or living in homeless shelters frequently have personal problems that interfere with their schoolwork. These social problems must be addressed if children are going to be able to do their best in school.

False dichotomies can distract us from learning from the research on education and distract us from finding out how to meet the needs of all children. Removing children from the group being tested will raise the test scores of that group, but it will not improve education. We should reexamine the data and provide real assistance to students who have difficulties. Holding back struggling children does not work.#

Rosalie Friend, Ph.D is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, Hunter College School of Education.



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