The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "Social Promotion Has No Easy Solution" by The Detroit News, 7/8/99.

Original Title:
Social Promotion: A Classic Education Debate
by Barry McGhan

Is social promotion another failed school policy practiced by spineless school administrators and misguided teachers? Have too many embarrassed parents demanded that their children pass--ready or not--to the next grade? Or, is social promotion just a paper tiger for headline-grabbing politicians to tame?

This debate (Detroit News, 3/18/99, 4/5/99)--whether about a real and important problem, or not--provides a classic example of the general nature of education controversies.

First, you can expect these disputes to pit "my facts" against "your facts." The pro and con writers for the News both conducted research in this area, and the findings of each contradicted those of the other, thus endorsing Samuel Crothers' view that "The trouble with facts is that there are so many of them."

Education topics free from conflicting facts are about as rare as passenger pigeons. Consider this list: phonics vs. whole language, standards vs. local control, new vs. traditional math, public vs. private schools, class size, etc. The research on these topics is vast, but across-the-board agreement within each body of research is non-existent.

Lacking a consensus about the facts, we fall back on a second common approach to education controversies--we form opinions based on our own experiences. After all, everybody's been to school, haven't they? The letters published following the researchers' editorials showed this approach.

Does social promotion exist? Sure it does. Teachers have always complained about kids coming into their classrooms unprepared for that year's work. They know the face of social promotion better than anyone.

Is there an easy solution to the problem? Probably not. You wouldn't believe, for example, how often students who had flunked Algebra 1 enrolled in my Algebra 2 classes, even though our math department had rules against it. This is not as unusual as you might think--research shows that teachers are rarely the final authority on retention of students. Also, don't forget the recent widespread opting-out of Michigan's High School Proficiency test and the message that sends about social promotion.

That brings us to a third characteristic of education controversies illustrated by the social promotion debate--they are habitually complex. To the credit of the two News researchers, neither thought that simply repeating a grade would be very worthwhile for struggling students. Both advocated making special efforts to help those students who have difficulty moving along to the next step in their education. Readers' responses also acknowledged some of the complexities of this topic.

The sources--and thus the cures--of students' learning failures are just not always clear or simple. Did a student fail to make progress for reasons related only to himself, or to the educational system? For example, did the student enter school too soon, move from school to school too often, or, have some kind of learning disability? Was he absent overmuch, or just lazy or inattentive?

Perhaps his teacher was too unprepared or unskilled to reach him. Are the standards against which he was judged appropriate? Are the tests used to assess his progress relevant to his instruction? Did his school have the textbooks and other materials needed to adequately cover the curriculum?

Even if we know the cause of a child's lack of progress his school may not have the resources it needs to correct the problem. Edicts from on high are unlikely to be accompanied by the resources needed to offer practical alternatives to simple retention. As we look for solutions to this--and all--school problems we should heed the words of H. L. Mencken: "For every deep and complex problem facing our society there is a simple answer, and it's wrong."

This brings us to a fourth characteristic of education controversies visible in the social promotion debate. Most often, these disputes are like arguing over the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. Simple retention, for example, is already widely used in the U.S. Researchers estimate that 15% of students are held back sometime before high school, a burden that falls disproportionately on poor and minority children. In addition, the News writers suggested we use summer school, cooperative learning, tutoring, individualized education plans, tougher expectations (like the MEAP tests), etc. But schools already use these things to the extent they have the resources to offer them.

These remedies all focus on the failing child as the thing that needs to be fixed. But, what about the education system itself? Why don't we have a curriculum where individual progress is continuously assessed and remediated, rather than delivered in year-long, 30-student chunks? Why don't we have a teacher workforce skilled in meeting the needs of a wide variety of students, well-compensated for this expertise, and treated like professionals rather than peons?

Maybe we should all go to summer school until we can answer these questions.


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