Pass or Fail: Teacher Effectiveness as Prevention
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?
Retaining or socially promoting a student takes a simplistic approach to education that is outdated and harmful. Finding alternatives to avoid both is imperative and entirely possible in today’s educational climate. Perhaps the most influential alternative to social promotion and retention is effective teaching and teachers who are willing to go the extra mile to make sure students are up to speed.
Some teachers may need professional development to help them diversify their approach to meet the instructional needs of lower performing students. Protheroe points to examples like the Metro Nashville Public Schools, who have established a comprehensive program for professional development, supporting veteran and, especially, new teachers who serve in high-poverty areas. The program includes work on the so-called Ruby Payne Framework to improve teacher understanding of poverty. There is also, according to Holt and Garcia, some important training with differentiated instruction and the Dignity with Discipline program.
Buena Vista Elementary, which is under the Metro Nashville umbrella, is a striking example of the success of these types of involvements. The school is just a few miles from downtown Nashville, in an area plagued by poverty and underdevelopment. A third of the students are homeless and live in one of the numerous shelters nearby. Violence is common, and almost all of the students receive free or reduced-fee lunches.
Despite the inherent difficulties of running a school in such a disadvantaged area, Buena Vista is a vibrant and thriving environment. Every student has a netbook, and there is an iPad for every two students. There are two teachers for every classroom (one is usually a student teacher on a paid placement), as well as a highly qualified phalanx of support staff on call.
The principal, Michelle McVicker, is focused on raising the students’ math and language arts skills. She ensures that each student has a goal and knows what he or she is working toward. “You should be able to ask any student what his or her math and reading goals are and get an answer,” she says and demonstrates that she means it by pulling a student out of a classroom and eliciting the answers.
In the “War Room,” every student’s goal, as well as their current data status, is captured and posted on a wall, with color charts indicating which ones are still in need of help, from blue (advanced), through green (proficient) and yellow (basic), to below basic (red). Two years ago, Buena Vista was considered a failing school. Nearly every card was in the red zone.
McVicker was hired and given free rein to acquire the tools she needed to get the school out of the red. Some of these were technological – as well as computers, classes use Smart Boards and projectors – but she also hired a fresh crew of teachers, commenting: “Because my teachers are all new, they have no bad habits to break.”
The majority of the cards in the War Room are now in the green and yellow zone. The turnaround is well under way.
Protheroe discusses changes to grouping practices and considers how some schools have moved toward increased use of multiage classrooms, with students of different ages grouped together in the classroom to enable continuous progress rather than have to worry about promotion year to year. Specific strategies include interventions to accelerate learning, such as strategies to help students “double-dose” in reading and math instruction to address the problem associated with providing remediation.
Protheroe suggests identifying struggling students and focusing attention on them early, doing whatever can be done to extend learning time, and taking a student’s socio-economic status into consideration when working with them. Beyond these measures, Protheroe also identifies extended learning time as an alternative to retention. Roderick, Engel, and Nagaoka reference the comprehensive evaluation conducted at Chicago Public Schools via the Summer Bridge program. This program found that test scores improved among third, sixth, and eighth graders.
The largest gains were among the sixth and eighth graders. A total of ninety hours of instruction were offered at summer school for third through sixth graders: three hours per day for six weeks. Eighth graders received 140 hours of instruction, attending four hours per day for seven weeks. Evaluations also identified several factors that were associated with larger gains, such as assigning students to teachers who had worked with them before. Teachers reported being more likely to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of the individual student since they were better informed of those needs.
Researchers studying this and other similar afterschool programs have determined that such systems for additional instruction tend to be more successful when there is a careful assessment of the individual student needs and designing of instruction to address those needs. Afterschool and regular day teachers were better able to support students when they communicated with each other about progress and problems.
At the same time, it is also important that the staff at afterschool programs have the knowledge to apply instructional strategies that support the student’s work efforts. Poggi notes that special professional development may well be required to provide this level of knowledge and skill to staff.
Interventions to accelerate learning are catalyzed by efforts to increase the effectiveness of teachers and extend learning time. Ultimately, a combination of these efforts proves most successful as a retention or social promotion alternative.
Click here to read all my suggestions for alternatives to social promotion and retention.