Clinton's dumbest education idea

Ending "social promotion" won't cure what ails American schools.


Joan Walsh
February 12, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

When President Clinton vowed in his State of the Union address to "end social promotion" -- passing schoolchildren to the next grade regardless of their achievement -- he bravely declared himself opposed to a concept that has absolutely no supporters. "Social promotion" is a concept much like "welfare as we know it." Nobody likes it, nobody wants to defend it and the president's promise to end it places him squarely on the side of the angels -- and the voters, according to pollsters. Exactly where Clinton likes to be.

So why are former Clinton supporters in the education community furious at the president's promise? "Because he knows better," says Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, which advocates to improve education for poor children. "When he was governor he knew education systems as thoroughly as anyone. He's just pandering." Nobody supports social promotion, Haycock notes, but the likely alternative -- forcing millions of students to repeat a grade in school -- is worse.

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It's rare that educational research is unanimous about anything, but on the issue of retention, it's close. There is near consensus among scholars and researchers that retention doesn't help, and often hurts, the children who repeat a grade. Chicago's attempt to end social promotion, which Clinton cited approvingly in his State of the Union address, is actually an expensive, undocumented experiment that, despite $100 million annually for remedial programs, has resulted in at least 24,000 students being left back over the last two years. Several states and cities have already ended social promotion and vastly increased retention rates, with dubious results.

Despite that research and experience, ending social promotion has become the cure-all for the nation's education ills. The goal unites a broad spectrum of politicians and social critics who normally disagree. Conservative writer Charles Murray, whose 1984 book "Losing Ground" blamed permissive 1960s policies for causing the 1980s urban underclass, linked social promotion with welfare as an example of a liberal practice that actually hurt those it was intended to help. "A student who did not want to learn was much freer not to learn," Murray wrote, and faced "no credible sanctions for not learning."

But Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers -- a group Murray likes no better than welfare-rights advocates -- also blasts social promotion. In her first major speech to the National Press Club after taking office, she blamed the practice of "sending students on to the next grade even though they weren't really ready" for the epidemic of students leaving high school without basic skills. The AFT has come out against social promotion, arguing that if students don't meet basic standards, they should be retained.

And of course, politicians to Clinton's right have tried to make ending social promotion their cause. Just before he left office last month, former California Gov. Pete Wilson signed two bills to end social promotion in California -- but they passed the state's Democrat-controlled Legislature unanimously, a measure of the notion's bipartisan popularity. Texas Gov. George W. Bush is a longtime foe of social promotion, but significantly, the plan passed by the Texas Legislature sets tough new standards for promotion, yet allows teachers and parents leeway to avoid leaving students back if they'd be harmed by it.

How did ending social promotion become the education reform flavor of the week? "It's part of the same 'get tough' mentality you see on crime, on welfare," says Ernest House, a University of Colorado education professor who has studied the issue closely. "But on school kids, it just doesn't work."

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Although Charles Murray traces the social promotion controversy to the 1960s, its roots go back to the early days of the century, when students began staying in school well past childhood, instead of leaving after a few years for farm or industrial work. As students who might have dropped out began staying in school longer, many lagged behind their better educated or more privileged peers, and the practice of holding back those who weren't achieving began to spread.

But as Richard Rosenblatt explained in a recent issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, turn-of-the-century educators then began to worry about rising numbers of students repeating grades. In 1908, Rosenblatt found, the Russell Sage Foundation sounded alarms about the growing amount of education money being wasted on students going through the same grade twice. Some researchers found that as many as two-thirds of students in certain school districts had been left back. Education reformers began charting the negative effects of retention and calling for more individualized instruction to allow students to advance with their peers -- in other words, social promotion. By 1938, a National Education Association survey found, most school districts practiced some version of social promotion.

The pendulum began to swing back in the 1950s, Rosenblatt observed, as critics blamed social promotion for declining achievement. In reality, many school districts, and individual schools, had always held back large numbers of failing students. In the 1960s and '70s, advocates for poor and minority children did take aim at retention, finding that black children were more likely to be left back, and that retention hurt their later school performance.

But the 1980s, which saw the reversal of many liberal social policies at the national, state and local level, brought the large-scale return of retention. While Clinton cites the fledgling Chicago experiment to back his crusade against social promotion, he'd be better off looking at what happened in New York, which abolished social promotion in 1981, but abandoned the program as a failure in 1983. Despite investing more than $50 million in 1,100 new teachers, New York left back more than 25,000 students in those two years.

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Unfortunately, their achievement didn't improve, says Ernest House, who evaluated the program. And years later, research found that New York students retained during that experiment were more likely to drop out than comparable low-achieving students who weren't left back. African-American boys who were retained were 37 percent more likely to drop out, House notes, and other studies show similar bad results for black males who've been retained in other districts. Black and Latino students are disproportionately left back under the current retention policies.

House and others believe Chicago is destined to repeat New York's mistakes. While Chicago school officials claim their program has increased overall student achievement, there has been no independent evaluation, House notes. "It's astonishing that a program that is so controversial and costs so much money has not been independently evaluated after three years," he says. New York, too, proclaimed its 1981 program an early success, based on internal data, but outside evaluators disputed those early gains, leading New York to abandon the experiment. The Consortium on Chicago School Reform recently took issue with the school district's data, finding that recent improvement in student test scores could not be attributed to its retention experiment. And while Chicago boasts that most students referred to its summer programs manage to move on to the next grade level, thanks to the extra help, a full 46 percent do not. Chicago school district officials did not return phone calls seeking comment on their program.

Programs to end social promotion don't have to lead to widespread retention. Many schools have adopted a policy of abolishing social promotion, but they put resources into identifying students at risk of repeating a grade early in the school year, and offer tutors and other special help. La Ballona Elementary School in Culver City, Calif., for instance, has done such a good job with its program to identify lagging students that last September, then-Gov. Wilson chose it as the site to sign legislation ending social promotion in California. "Yes, some kids are going to be held back," Wilson acknowledged at the press conference. But not at La Ballona. The Los Angeles Times reported that only two or three students a year are actually retained, despite their ambitious program. The principal called retention "a terrible option."

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Several cities, including Corpus Christi, Texas, and Long Beach, Calif., have abolished social promotion without vastly increasing retention. Corpus Christi tests at-risk students every three weeks to make sure they're keeping up. Most educators say retention should be one option among many considered for students who can't achieve at grade level. "The 'expert opinion' on retention changes every 10 years," complains Barbara Karvelis, principal of San Francisco's Edison Elementary School. "Each case is individual, and you can't have one policy. You've got to consider the student's age, gender, their parents' views, whether they were absent a lot." The handful of studies that have found positive benefits to retention have mostly been in well-funded, suburban schools, where the small number of students who are retained are more likely to get the special help they need than at urban schools where higher numbers fail.

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If retention doesn't work, how can educators best reduce the large number of students who fail to perform at grade level?

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Maybe the biggest disappointment of the Clinton administration, especially in a time of budget surpluses, is its failure to vastly increase funding for pre-kindergarten programs. The benefits of preschool, especially for low-income children, have been well-documented. Grade retention rates are much higher for children who haven't attended preschool. But where programs like Head Start tried to give a boost to the poor, they were never fully funded. Ironically, their success resulted in a jump in preschool attendance for middle-class and affluent kids, while the low-income kids who need preschool most are only half as likely as wealthier kids to get it today. Although states would have to get involved in establishing universal pre-kindergarten programs -- and several already have -- the Clinton administration could have put much more political, budgetary and regulatory muscle behind the notion.

Kati Haycock of the Education Trust says the Clinton administration has fallen down most in the area of monitoring Title I funds, the federal dollars school districts get to help poor and low-achieving students. School districts who receive Title I dollars are now allowed to show overall school improvement, rather than monitoring how poor and low-achieving students are doing, Haycock notes. She and others believe Clinton should have developed a national initiative to recruit good teachers to urban school districts. The new practice of reducing class size has, paradoxically, hurt many urban kids, because good urban teachers are fleeing to new classrooms in higher-paying, less demanding suburban schools, leaving urban kids with poorly trained, uncredentialed teachers. "The research shows that if you could provide low-income kids with teachers as well-trained as those who teach in suburban districts, you'd wipe out half the achievement gap between those groups of kids," Haycock says.

Anti-retention advocates also say devoting more resources to reading skills in the early grades would be more effective than retention. In Chicago, the advocacy group Designs for Change has called upon the school district to invest the $100 million it spends on its retention program in a combination of early childhood education, better reading instruction and early identification of failing students. "We oppose social promotion and retention," says Sue Davenport of Designs for Change.

Of course, the Clinton plan is mostly symbolism. Although it triples federal funding for after-school programs and tutors, to help children who already have or may soon be retained, that will still only provide $600 million for the entire nation, when Chicago is spending $100 million in one city. "What rises to the top of the president's agenda is what pollsters tell him sells," says Haycock. "This won't make a difference. It's chump change."

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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