Academic journal article Education Next

Retaining Retention: How Chicago Changed-But Ultimately Saved-Its Controversial Program to End Social Promotion

Academic journal article Education Next

Retaining Retention: How Chicago Changed-But Ultimately Saved-Its Controversial Program to End Social Promotion

Article excerpt

In a remarkable confluence of events last winter and spring, questions about student retention became the swirling center of education debate in New York City, Chicago, and, by virtue of these cities' size and clout, throughout the country.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in January that city schools would no longer pass 3rd graders on to the next grade if they had not mastered minimal reading skills on an hour-long reading test. Civil-rights and community activists were opposed, and they threatened to sue to block the plan. The district's decision to hire teachers for summer school--part of the retention plan--outside of union hiring rules created another furor. And some parents and community members protested the new initiative as too harsh.

While New York churned, Chicago, where a pioneering student retention policy had been in effect since 1997, was hit in April by two studies from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago. The studies suggested, with seeming definitiveness, that ending social promotion was ineffective, at best, and possibly destructive.

"We should scrap what we're doing and go back to the drawing board," University of Chicago professor Melissa Roderick, one of the lead CCSR researchers, told the Associated Press, in a story reprinted around the country.

Roderick's message in the CCSR press release accompanying the report itself was somewhat more nuanced: "The bottom line is that, without substantial supports, neither social promotion nor retention will improve low-performing students." But this qualification was apparently lost on newspaper editors, who reprinted the story under headlines like, "Social promotion fight didn't help in Chicago" and "Program to curtail 'social promotion' fails."


The media also largely ignored other CCSR studies that had indicated that Chicago's retention policy was popular among the city's teachers, principals, and parents for, among other things, setting clear standards for student performance (see "Educators and Students Speak," page 49). Nor did the media consider whether the retention policy had contributed to the dramatic overall achievement gains seen in Chicago since the policy's adoption.

In New York, the critical CCSR studies helped fuel opposition to the new retention program. Mayor Bloomberg had to remove two of his own appointees from the school governing board, a move that brought widespread criticism, in order to ensure adoption. And even before the program was fully implemented, the district was forced to add an extensive appeals process.

The Chicago Board of Education, also responding to the new CCSR reports, immediately modified its student retention program by dropping math scores as a consideration in retention decisions. That move, seeming to herald the end of one of Mayor Richard Daley's signature school reform initiatives, was labeled by the Chicago Tribune as "the social promotion surrender."

Staying Power

Despite the controversy--and the retreats--the programs have survived. But the events of last winter and spring illustrate the roller-coaster ride that awaits any school district that tries to tamper with a core education policy like student retention. Student retention, one of several lightning rod issues that bring parents, union leaders, politicians, and academics together--to fight--is not a task for the faint of heart.

It's thus fitting that the city of broad shoulders, guided by a mayor named Daley, should lead the way. Chicago's pioneering program is now in its eighth year, having withstood its share of icy gusts from multiple directions. For those who have been paying close attention, the brawl that broke out last spring was just the latest in a rolling clamor to control one of education's linchpin topics. The stakes are high; the questions, many and complicated. …

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