Grade retention: Will it help?
| February 23, 2021
Retention rarely helps struggling learners, especially those with reading disabilities. I’ll say it again: It rarely helps.
It often backfires. Combinations of negative feelings abound: Humiliation, bewilderment, anger, despondency, resentment, despair, and so on. Magnify this by the widespread isolation and anxiety caused by COVID-19 and you have a formula for continued despair, resentment, and turmoil.
Around the turn of the century, Chicago enforced an aggressive policy of retaining students, a policy examined by Dr. Mary Abbott and her colleagues. Regrettably, the results were not surprising.
“The academic future of the students who were actually retained was poor. The academic performance of the Chicago third graders who were retained was similar to that of third graders who were not retained, retained sixth graders performed more poorly than their counterparts who were not retained, and retained eighth graders were far more likely to drop out and to do so at a younger age than students who were not retained. Furthermore, 78% of the students retained in eighth grade had dropped out by the time they turned 19…. These results mirror those of past retention studies (italics added) that have reported that retained students either show declines in achievement over several years after retention or have academic outcomes that are no better after repeating a grade than those of low-achieving promoted students. In addition, students who have been retained have higher dropout rates than their promoted low-achieving peers.”
Similarly, Dr. Amy Reschly noted that retention sharply increased the odds that children would drop out of school:
“Failure to achieve grade-level expectations in reading is the primary reason students in the early grades are retained … Research on grade retention clearly points to a connection between retention and dropout. … Grade retention was the most powerful predictor of later dropout, with retained students being 11 times more likely to drop out of school.”
Today, grade retention continues to backfire.
“Our results indicate that grade retention has a neutral effect on academic achievement in the short run. In the long run, grade retention, just like forced downgrading, has adverse effects on schooling outcomes and, more so, for less able pupils.”
So, if the school wants to retain your child, what should you do?
Given retention’s appalling history, I suggest that you advocate for promotion with all the necessary services needed to meet your child’s social, emotional, and academic needs. These services should give your child all the help he (or she) needs to make substantial academic progress and to feel satisfied and motivated to continue making such progress.
But what if it looks like you have no choice? What if school personnel are is determined to retain your child? And what if your state’s regulations support retention? I suggest one or more of the following:
- Study the relevant portions of your state’s educational regulations.
- Share the above quotes or articles with the school.
- Advocate for all the services your child needs, such as daily tutoring by a master’s level reading or mathematics specialist.
- Discuss the issues with a highly competent educational consultant and an educational attorney.
- Seek help from publicly funded advocacy agencies. If, for example, your child is eligible for special education, contact your state’s Disability Rights organization or similar state organizations.
If your child is retained, it’s important to follow the advice of Dr. Mary Abbott and her colleagues:
“A specific plan should be clearly defined that highlights how the retention year will be different, with a greater level of intensity and duration of services. … Schools need to keep in mind that putting children back into an environment of inadequate intervention will only leave them behind, with poor educational and employment prospects for the future.”
But don’t stop here. Keep monitoring your child’s progress, frequently meet with the school to discuss his progress, and, if necessary, to modify his program.
If you treat school personnel with respect and stick to legitimate issues, issues that require their involvement, you have no need to pull back. You're doing what's essential. You’re recognizing that your child has no time to lose. In a way, you're challenging the tyranny of the clock.
If your child is eligible for special education, involve the school’s social worker. Discuss these regulations from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In developing each child’s IEP, the IEP Team must consider ... the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child. (34 CFR § 300.324)
Social work services in schools includes … mobilizing school and community resources to enable the child to learn as effectively as possible in his or her educational program. (34 CFR §300.34(c)(14))
Retention and Promotion
Whether schools retain or promote struggling learners, their programs often miss their mark. By year’s end, many of these students make only a snail’s progress. To prevent this, educators and parents need to quickly identify and remove or mitigate the barriers to progress.
Five common but often ignored barriers that stifle progress are:
- Inadequate sleep
- Poor nutrition
- Inadequate progress monitoring
- Poor school-home coordination
- Little if any quality tutoring
Inadequate sleep, often caused by poor habits like binging on computer games late into the night, can severely impede struggling learners’ ability to learn. And like floodwaters, its pernicious effects are widespread. It, for example, can make learners sleepy, moody, or emotionally overreactive.
Researchers believe that sleep affects learning and memory in two ways: Lack of sleep impairs a person's ability to focus and learn efficiently. Sleep is necessary to consolidate a memory (make it stick) so that it can be recalled in the future.”
Poor nutrition undermines learning. Why? Because nutritious foods positively influence learning and health. Nevertheless, the diets of many struggling learners are overloaded with sweets and “empty calories,” calories of little nutritious value.
“Poor nutrition can leave students’ susceptible to illness or lead to headaches and stomachaches, resulting in school absences…. Access to nutrition that incorporates protein, carbohydrates, and glucose has been shown to improve students’ cognition, concentration, and energy levels.”
Inadequate progress monitoring creates unnecessary difficulties for teachers and struggling learners. Often, it’s caused by an erroneous belief, a belief held by teachers and support staff: “My impressions and memories can accurately identify what Juan has mastered.”
To the learners’ detriment, impressions and memories are frequently wrong. Without frequent, valid, and recorded progress monitoring, such memories generate lessons and assignments that bore or frustrate struggling learners. Emotionally, such lessons boomerang. Academically, they stifle learning. Together, they eviscerate the joy and satisfaction of learning.
“When teachers use systematic progress monitoring to track their students’ progress in reading, mathematics, or spelling, they are better able to identify students in need of additional or different forms of instruction, they design stronger instructional programs, and their students achieve better.”
Poor school-home coordination creates difficulties. It often results in teachers, support staff, and parents inadvertently undermining one another, which readily confuses and frustrates struggling learners. In contrast, strong outreach programs that frequently and systematically offer parents the information and supports they need to help their children can enhance struggling learners’ academic, social, and emotional success.
“If classroom teachers, students, and parents communicate clearly and frequently about students' academic programs, progress, and needs, more students will succeed at high levels and fulfill their own and their families' high expectations.”
Little if any quality tutoring often slams the door to academic advancement and opens it to severe stagnation, emotional difficulties, and behavioral problems. In contrast, quality tutoring can prevent this. Typically, it’s the most effective way to improve struggling learners’ reading.
It often enhances positive tutor, teacher, and student interactions. It’s a prime opportunity to improve struggling learners’ self-efficacy, their belief that “If I use the right strategies in the right ways, while making a reasonable effort, I can succeed on this task.” In addition to strengthen motivation, it can teach struggling learners how to successfully handle many of life’s challenges.
“The most effective strategy for struggling students, especially in elementary schools, is one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations.”
By mitigating or eliminating these (and other) common but often ignored barriers to struggling learners’ success, schools can enhance their progress. Doing so can eliminate the issue of retention.
Will this be easy. No. Will efforts be flawless? No. But for professional, practical, and moral reasons it’s essential. Its why many teachers teach. Student successes motivates them like it motivates struggling learners. It’s what many parents hope for: Programs and activities that help their children succeed in life, today and well into the future.
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