Examining the Negative Effects of Retention in Our Schools

Article excerpt

During the 1980's, "A Nation At Risk" frightened the United State into reviewing its goals of education. Educators were challenged to stem the rising tide of mediocrity (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) through the establishment of stringent promotional standards aimed at eliminating social promotion. This proposal has brought more disaster to the door steps of the schools in the form of social retention. This paper examines the underlying reasons for lashing back at social promotion, explores the long-term effects that social retention will have on children and education and suggests instructional intervention strategies that can be used to obviate both social promotion and social retention.

What is social promotion? A common definition would say that social promotion is the advancement of a student to a higher grade level before the student has mastered the skills of the current grade level. A less technical definition would be the promotion of a student to the next highest grade based upon social promotion the perceived vehicle to mediocrity in education? In truth, social promotion was a failure because students arrived in higher grades under prepared for the instructional level and educators who received them were under prepared to teach them. Teachers could not take the students from where they were and bring them to where they should be. It was far easier to fulfill the expectation that these students would ultimately be failures than it was to swim against the current of low expectations, prejudice, and the sort of sort and sift paradigm. After all, there was obviously something wrong with these students and something had to be done to prevent teachers from being labeled as failures.

Thus, social retention was born. And it has been allowed to thrive for nearly a century. As early as 1904, the superintendent of the New York City schools blew the warning siren over the use of retention for improving achievement of low-achieving students (Coefield & Bloomers, 1954). Yet, it was already too late, as millions of poor performing students were already being retained (Ayers, 1990). This practice was resulting in extremely high dropout rates so the pendulum was interrupted and swung back to encourage social promotion. However, the demands of business for quality graduates proved too heavy for this swing and so the shift back to the sort and sift paradigm was brisk.

Today, retention remains the major strategy used by educators to cure academic failure. This practice persists although the research and literature proves it harmful to students in terms of both achievement and personal adjustment (Book, 1977; Holmes, 1983 and 1986; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jackson, 1975). Retention is perpetuated by the advocates of competency based education and grade-level standards the retention advocates are blinded by the existing paradigm and they do not see the research that proves their quest as cruel as it is ineffective. They are satisfied with producing two types of students, those who can perform on or above standard and those who can be pushed aside or pushed out as poorly assembled or merely adequate citizens. Is this the strength of the existing paradigm that encourages the sorting of children into categories and the sifting of some children to the top and others to the bottom? It surely must be! But what can be done to dismantle this sorting machine?

Robert Slavin of John Hopkins University (1995) listed several common factors for student failure:

* Delayed development, physical, intellectual and language disabilities

* Poverty and deprivation

* Low aspirations, poor self-efficacy

* Dysfunctional family situations, parent neglect or abuse

* Disvalue of education in the family and/or in the community

* Behavior problems, antisocial, delinquent, and emotional problems

* Poor standardized test scores, low academic achievement

* Culturally diverse backgrounds, minority status, recent immigration

* English is not the primary language in the home

* History of poor instruction and inadequate school resources

Few of these factors will be corrected if a student is retained in school. …