Studies show that holding kids back doesn't help them in the long run. So why is the idea making a comeback?
If Einstein’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” then it stands to reason that the politics of education have gone completely mad. That’s a logical conclusion as states now consider retention legislation to force young children to repeat a grade if they don’t meet state literacy standards. The legislation, in other words, would put students through the very same curriculum they just experienced — with the expectation of different results.
As much as that meets Einstein’s definition of crazy, the idea does, at first glance, sound somewhat reasonable. Considering the Dexter Manley cautionary tale and horror stories about skyrocketing college remediation rates, there are legitimate reasons to be worried about grade inflation and “social promotion” — and there’s an understandable desire for the graduation process to mean something. A seeming cure-all is retention — that is, denying promotion to students who don’t meet certain standards.
But while retention may sound smart, and while it may let policymakers seem “tough” and “pro-accountability,” it doesn’t typically help kids. In fact, empirical studies show that it often hurts students in the long run.
Here’s what the Wall Street Journal found in 2010:
A 2009 Rand Corp. review of 91 studies found retention usually didn’t benefit students academically over the long term. Any academic gains tend to last only a year or two and fade over time, says the study by Rand, a nonprofit research organization…
Studies suggest that holding a child back at any age raises the risk of dropping out of school later, says Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. Being held back may mean a child is older or more mature physically than peers in middle or high school, making it harder for a child to “fit in” at an age when that is especially important, Dr. Alexander says…
Also, students themselves tend to dread the prospect. In surveys, students blame “repeating a grade, or being retained, or held back, or flunking—whatever they call it,” for “their poor peer relationships, their poor self-esteem and their continuing struggles at school,” says Shane Jimerson, a professor of school psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied the effects.
Summing up research over the last five decades, researchers at Texas A&M published a paper for the National Institutes of Health concluding:
Despite the intuitive appeal of the argument for grade retention as an intervention for poor achievement, the weight of available empirical evidence of varying methodological quality collected over 50 years suggests that grade retention either bestows no benefits on the retained student or has a negative impact on achievement and on social and emotional adjustment, self-confidence, and attachment to school. Meta-analytic investigations of the published literature report overall negative effects of grade retention. Grade retention has also been associated with a substantial increase in school withdrawal before high school completion, even when retained students’ academic performance is similar to that of comparably low-achieving promoted peers.
In the face of such evidence, the question is obvious: Why would policymakers press schools to retain more kids?
The Journal’s article offers clues, noting that “experts say simply ‘recycling’ kids, or having them repeat a grade, risks masking underlying needs for remedial tutoring, special instruction or help with undiagnosed learning disabilities.”
To policymakers, though, that’s not necessarily a “risk” — it might be the intended goal. Today’s obsession with tax cuts has reduced funding for K-12 education. Politicians, though, don’t want to seem wholly anti-education — so they’ve trotted out the old “we can’t keep throwing money at the problem” canard when it comes to schools. They couple that rhetoric with various proposals under the catch-all banner of “reform” — proposals to crush teachers unions, measure schools by test scores, and, yes, retain students for repeat grades. That makes those political leaders appear to be “tough” — and simultaneously gives the public hope that there are ways to fix education that don’t require real financial sacrifice.
But financial sacrifice is what truly addressing the education crisis will require. As the Journal notes, “the National Association of School Psychologists says most struggling students should be promoted, but given special help to erase deficits, such as different teaching methods, tutoring, small-group instruction, summer school, after-school programs or diagnostic assessments for possible learning disabilities.”
Those are targeted programs that require serious money. Until that money is found, whether through tax hikes or reshaped spending priorities, no retention agenda, no matter how insane — and no politician, no matter how often he utters words like “reform” or “accountability” — is going to solve the underlying problem.
David Sirota is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. More David Sirota.
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Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
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See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
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A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
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Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
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Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
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The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
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Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
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Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
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And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
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