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A pass should be earned

By Michael Zwaagstra
web posted August 23, 2010

The claim that research has proven that social promotion is better than retention is, at best, ambiguous. The Beginning School Study, a long-term research project conducted in Baltimore, examined the academic and emotional effects of retention on a large number of students during their first eight years in school. The results of this study were published in On the Success of Failure by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Susan Dauber (2003). They report that the negative emotional effects of grade retention on students were substantially less than expected, and that the children who were retained normally experienced long-term, rather than short-term, increases in academic achievement.

Imagine what would happen if driver education instructors adopted social promotion policies. Suppose all student drivers received their licenses regardless of whether or not they knew how to drive a car or knew the rules of the road. Think of the harm done to the self-esteem of young drivers who failed to pass their driver's exam and were unable to drive at the same time as their peers. Yes, indeed, it would be embarrassing for some adolescents to fail their tests. But, any loss of self-esteem or embarrassment that these adolescents may feel is better than the alternative of having incompetent drivers.

Would people be prepared to accept social promotion in driver education programs simply to preserve the self-esteem of adolescents? We think not. Being certain that people learn how to drive safely is more important than their embarrassment, frustration, or self-esteem. Ensuring that they receive a driver's license, regardless of their knowledge or driving ability, would severely undermine the credibility of the license.

Why do we expect less from public schools than from driving schools? Don't all schools exist to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills they are supposed to possess and are certified as possessing? Surely, there must be specific ways of knowing that students actually possess the required knowledge and skills at certain levels of proficiency.

Allowing students to enter the next grade in school, regardless of their performance, undermines the credibility of the public education system, something that is not allowed to happen in driving schools. What value would there be to a high school diploma when it no longer meant that certain standards had been attained? Obviously, public education is at least as important as driver education, and consequently high school diplomas must have at least the same value and credibility.

In fact, we think that social promotion often places unrealistic demands on teachers. When students are promoted from grade to grade without first mastering the requisite skills and knowledge in the previous grade, teachers are expected to adapt to this fact in their instruction and evaluation. As these students continue from grade to grade, the diversity in the classroom is likely to increase, and this means that teachers are likely to have increasing difficulty in providing suitable instruction for all the students. This greater classroom diversity can be attributed to social promotion, and we think it is a unfair burden on teachers.

Finally, we ask if social promotion prepares students for life. In what post-secondary institution, workplace, or profession do all people get regular promotions regardless of their motivation, effort, or achievement? Obviously, when students know that they will be passed from grade to grade even when they have failed to meet the required standards, they receive very poor preparation for life as a citizen.

Social promotion is a misguided policy that undermines the effort that many teachers rightly make to sustain academic standards. As a result, we strongly urge school boards, superintendents, and school administrators not to embrace strict no-fail policies. While it is appropriate for teachers to, within reason, help their students acquire the knowledge and skills that are necessary for them to pass onto the next grade, students need to make a reasonable effort to learn.

Instead, educational authorities should enact policies that help teachers do what is best for their students. There are times where retaining students in their current grade would be appropriate because of serious academic deficiencies or because they have not put in the required effort. Similarly, there are times when students have fallen slightly short of the standards for being promoted to the next grade, but they have worked hard throughout the year and have shown promising improvements. If the teachers are confident that the deficiencies can be remediated, perhaps by tutorial study or summer school, there may be good reason for promoting these students. ESR

Excerpted from What's Wrong with Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long.  Zwaagstra and Clifton are research fellows with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and are, respectively,  a high school social studies teacher and a University of Manitoba education professor. Visit Frontier's website at www.fcpp.org.

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