Pass or Fail: The Real Cost to the Individual

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?

What do you see as the main positives of retention and social promotion in American schools? How about the drawbacks? Are these practices actually helping students or do they only work in theory?

Edmond Shoat, a nineteen-year-old Chicago dropout who had been held back a year, left high school just two weeks before graduation. By any estimate, he has had a hard life. He grew up in the Cabrini-Green project, notorious for its gang violence. His uncle, who wasn’t much older than he, was murdered near their apartment – Edmond heard the shots, and rushed out to find his uncle dead.

Following that experience, the family tried to get themselves into a better situation. “I’d say about a month later, my whole family moved out of the projects,” says Edmond. “My mom, she worked at a nursing home. And you know, sometimes she’d either quit the job, or we’d have to move. We couldn’t pay the rent. Or we’d find another job and move somewhere else. We did a lot of moving around.”

Edmond wound up at Senn High School, one of the worst-performing schools in an area known for particularly terrible schools. He didn’t do badly, however, and got on the football team. But one day he got into a fight, which escalated and eventually landed him in jail for a week, on a charge of illegally possessing a weapon (a pocketknife he’d forgotten about, which wasn’t used in the fight). Around the same time, he became a father: his three-year-old son, Rajan, now lives with the child’s mother in Atlanta.

A chemistry teacher at Senn, Antonio San Agustin, tried to help Edmond stay on track with his studies while the teen was in jail and working his way through the court system. “He was a good kid,” Agustin remembers. “And he came to class, always looking to make up his assignments because he was absent quite a bit. I didn’t have problems with him making up the assignments.”

But even the intervention of concerned teachers couldn’t keep Edmond in school. He flunked his first attempt at the GED and now has a low-paying job. He dreams of being able to move to live closer to his son, and of eventually becoming an actor. Yet, the statistics are not on his side.

Do the pros of social promotion and retention outweigh the cons? Assessing the costs of retention on an individual is difficult, but attempts have been made. A study by Thompson and Cunningham concluded that retention basically discourages students whose motivation and confidence are already shaky. Findings indicate that promoted students gain an opportunity to advance through next year’s curriculum, while retained students go over the same ground and thus fall further behind their advancing peers.

Several other studies identify a high correlation between student retention and student dropout rates. Goldschmidt and Wang, for instance, applied the National Longitudinal Study (NELS) to examine student and school factors associated with students dropping out in different grades. Their findings showed that consistent with previous research, being held back is the single strongest predictor of dropping out and that its effect is consistent for both early and late dropouts. Retention can destroy self-esteem and otherwise undermine social and personal adjustments. With retention typically occurring during the most formative and impressionable years, the impact can be overwhelming.

Retained students have increased risks in health-related areas such as stress, low social confidence, substance abuse, and violent behaviors. Several studies have demonstrated that students view retention as being more degrading and stressful than losing a parent or going blind, which is clearly indicative of a tremendous cost personally and socially. Highly negative development changes, including below average self-esteem, higher instances of social isolation from peers, shame regarding grade retention and being older than classmates, resentment of teachers and administrators and an overall diminished quality of life. Without feeling confident in their education setting and lacking meaningful, positive relationships with peers, teachers, and administrators, a student’s academic potential is undermined.

Could retention have played a primary role in Edmond dropping out of school? What could have gone differently to help him succeed? Would Edmond be living out his dreams as an involved father and working actor if retention hadn’t been in play?

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