Elementary Teachers' Beliefs and Knowledge about Grade Retention: How Do We Know What They Know?

By Witmer, Stacie M.; Hoffman, Lynn M. et al. | Education, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Elementary Teachers' Beliefs and Knowledge about Grade Retention: How Do We Know What They Know?


Witmer, Stacie M., Hoffman, Lynn M., Nottis, Katharyn E., Education


Introduction

Years of research have shown that retention provides limited academic advantages to students (McCoy & Reynolds, 1999; Meisels & Liaw, 1993; Reynolds, 1992; Shepard & Smith, 1989), and yet the practice continues. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) (2003), approximately 15% of all American students are retained each year with 30-50% being held back before the ninth grade. Retention rates have increased over the last twenty years (NASE 2003) as pressure to end social promotion has increased and satisfactory performance on newly introduced end of year standards-based assessments has become a new expectation for promotion to the next grade.

When decisions are made to retain students in grade, the primary goal is to remediate academic difficulties (Nason, 1991). However, grade retention is not an effective educational strategy for long-term academic improvement (McCoy & Reynolds, 1999; Meisels & Liaw, 1993; Owings & Magliaro, 1998; Shepard & Smith, 1989). Any small positive effects that have been seen with the retained students usually have not been sustained beyond a few years (Roderick, 1995). In addition, retention has been associated with a variety of negative effects, including greater academic failure (Meisels & Liaw, 1993; Reynolds, 1992), higher drop out rates (Roderick, 1995), and lower self-concept (Nason, 1991). Repeating a grade has been found to be the third most stressful imagined event in a child's life, surpassed only by going blind and losing a parent (Shepard & Smith, 1990).

Teachers usually make the recommendation to promote or retain their students, with the final decision mitigated by varying input or pressure from parents and administrators (Kelly, 1999). Since teachers have this responsibility, it is important to identify and understand their beliefs and knowledge about retention.

Teachers' Beliefs About Retention

Pajares (1992) has suggested that beliefs are the best indicators of the decisions individuals make throughout their lives. Beliefs are different from knowledge (Enters, 1994; Shepard & Smith, 1989; Tomchin & Impara, 1992) and often described interchangeably as attitudes, judgments, values, opinions, perceptions, ideology, and internal mental processes (Eisenhart, Shrum, Harding, & Cuthbert, 1988; Pajares, 1992). Beliefs are relatively static whereas knowledge changes as more and different knowledge is acquired (Nespor, 1987).

Teachers' beliefs appear to underlie their judgments about students (Fang, 1996; Tomchin & Impara, 1992), although many times these beliefs are interwoven with knowledge, making it difficult to separate the two (Shepard & Smith, 1989). Many researchers (e.g., Shepard & Smith, 1989; Stipek & Byler, 1997) have identified teachers' beliefs about retention as a way to explain their practice of retention. However, few studies have documented how teachers create their own belief systems throughout their teaching careers (Kagan, 1992).

It is known that teachers rarely alter their beliefs based upon research studies they have read and are more likely to do so as a result of personal experiences or advice from colleagues (Kagan, 1992). Knowledge of research findings has been referred to as propositional knowledge (Smith, 1989) while knowledge from personal experiences has been labeled practical knowledge (Fenstermacher, 1994). Practical knowledge, "[I]s bounded by time, place, or situation. To claim to know something practically is to claim to know something about an action, event, or situation in a particular instance" (Fenstermacher, 1994, p. 28). This delineation is supported further by Calderhead's (1996) efforts to differentiate among different sorts of teacher knowledge. It may be that straightforward questions about research results require teachers' theoretical knowledge, while situational questions activate their personal practice or case knowledge. …

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