Pass or Fail: What Are the Alternatives to Retention and Social Promotion?

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?

It’s clear that the social promotion and retention strategies and the pass-or-fail focus of our current school system, have high price tags and return very little on investment. The long-term problems are very real and very costly. Although there are inevitable differences of opinion, most educators agree that the high costs associated with retention and social promotion policies warrant a very careful review.

The ineffectiveness of these strategies indicates that we need to develop an entirely new way of helping students with academic problems. Indeed, the fact that these actions are so frequently counterproductive to the individual student is a warning signal that they need much more than a mere review. Retention and social promotion are symptoms of a serious societal dysfunction that can only be cured by the development of a new, qualitatively different education system. The starting point for this new system must be the individual girl or boy and their ability to develop intellectually and psychologically in a variety of learning contexts.

But what type of alternative system are we proposing?

Because of the chaos and dysfunction that is prevalent in the current system, we must first be clear on what we’re not aiming for regarding systemic improvements.

Many alternative strategies can reduce the incidence of retention and social promotion. There are plenty of these kinds of alternatives, and some of them go so far as to focus on preventing the failure cycle that sustains poor performance. Other proposals try to transform social promotion and retention into an effective intervention process. Unfortunately, none of these proposals stands out as a clear winner.

Because some alternatives to retention and social promotion are already available, one must ask oneself why so few of them are used. Why is it that we are forcing Common Core standards on our children in spite of overwhelming evidence that such standardized learning and over-testing is ineffective?

Numerous studies have explored alternative strategies to retention and social promotion. One such study, by McDonald and Bean, offers 25 alternatives to retention. In the course of their study, McDonald and Bean note that “retention has often been reviewed as a necessity in most school systems by faculty and administration,” but suggest that this is a misguided view.

Their key observation is that the research does not support retention or social promotion as the only options for students falling behind academically. Moreover, they contend that retention is decidedly unhelpful and largely unsuccessful as a strategy for academic recovery. In the end, they conclude it is little more than a “prevailing evil in public schools.”

So what are some of these actual alternatives? Click here to see the full list of alternatives I have suggested to social promotion and retention.


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