Pass or Fail: A Spotlight on Social Promotion Responsibility
In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.
While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?
Would you really want your child to move on to the next grade level if he or she hadn’t mastered the skills and concepts necessary in their current grade level? Perhaps social promotion makes sense from a social perspective, but how does this set a student up for academic success?
The Clinton Administration had strong objections to social promotion in the late 1990s. In a 1999 report that continues to influence views on the subject, Taking Responsibility for Ending Social Promotion: A Guide for Educators and State and Local Leaders, social promotion was tied not only to the child’s inability to perform at the next grade level but also to the clear negative effects of social promotion on a child’s future. The key points of the report emphasized that students allowed to progress to the next grade through promotion, rather than achievement, would be ill-prepared to enter college or the workforce.
Although there are some who continue to tout social promotion as a strategy, even the majority of supporters now rarely endorse it as a preferable, standalone practice for students who struggle to achieve. Rather, they take an oppositional stance, offering social promotion as an alternate or better choice for children than retention.
One obvious problem with this “better than the alternative” mindset is that it clearly emphasizes some of the less than savory reasons for social promotion. As was the case in the past, social promotion becomes the practice of choice when the numbers don’t look good; when a proposed retention policy requires too many children being held back. Districts may fear the political and economic ramifications of a high retention rate.
While supporters of social promotion believed that retention undermines the social and psychological well-being of students, today there is also a focus on the achievement-related repercussions of retention. Many believe that retaining children will not result in academic gains, particularly if a child experiences the same curriculum and instructional methodologies as in the previous year. Some students appear to gain more from exposure to new material in the next grade, and others find new experiences motivating. Even so, the more positive impacts of social promotion are difficult to track, primarily because schools rarely distinguish between regular and social promotion.
Critics of social promotion believe the practice deceives both children and their parents. Children may conclude that their efforts in the learning environment do not matter when they can pass to the next grade regardless of their current grade performance. Observing their children progressing from grade to grade, parents may fall under the mistaken impression that their child will be prepared for college, or to enter the workforce upon graduation.
On the flip side, it’s worth noting that a series of supports specifically impact the success of retention. These include support among parents and educators; processes that identify students at risk for retention and provide high-quality interventions and support; systems that set criteria for promotion that balance local and state measures; strategies that build the capacity of teachers to support students at risk for retention; and systems that monitor the effects of implementation of the policy.
There’s a fair chance that teachers end up having to provide too much attention to students who are not ready for coursework at a certain grade level. Although the effort may have the best intentions, the process can interfere with the teacher’s ability to focus on the other students who are ready to learn at that grade level.
Retention and social promotion policies, have a long and complicated history in the United States. Most of the traditional solutions to the challenges of education have proven problematic, and their results have been limited. Social promotion and retention divide opinion. Both policies have their critics and supporters.
Put yourself in the position of a student, teacher, or parent and imagine facing one of these options. Which strikes you as the better solution? Which strikes you as better for future academic success? Which is likely to help the student feel greater confidence about his or her potential to make progress?