Date: Jun 17, 1999 11:10 AM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Retention in grade fails children
From Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency (EDDRA) -- a
Gerald Bracey Report on the Condition of Education.
Also, in Education Week, June 6, 1999, p. 42.
RETENTION IN GRADE FAILS CHILDREN
President Clinton once again calls for an end to "social promotion." If the
kids aren't cutting it, hold them back in the same grade. E. J. Dionne
worries that retaining children in grade might turn out to be just another
gimmick. It is worse. It is a disaster. Given the increasing popularity of
using failure as a pedagogical technique (!?), it is important to know this
about retaining children in grade: it doesn't work.
Unlike most aspects of education which have contending forces pulling in
opposite directions, the body of research on flunking kids speaks with a
single voice. One 1991 study reviewed the research literature on 49
educational innovations, calculated their impact on education achievement,
and then ranked them in order of power. Retention in grade ranked 49th. It
was among the few innovations that actually produced negative results. I
recently reviewed and updated this research literature adding studies not
available to the 1991 analysis. Nothing has changed.
Why do people think failing kids works? In large part because they are not
in a position to conduct a controlled experiment. Teachers and parents
usually can see only how retained children fare the next year. They do
better--on the same material they did poorly on the first time around. A
little better. Few blossom into high achievers. Teachers and parents,
watching the children struggle in the second year in the same grade then
assume, reasonably, that the children's' situation would have been that
much worse had they been promoted. The assumption is reasonable but wrong.
There have been situations in which some children who had low achievement
were promoted while other children of the same low achievement were
flunked. In those settings, the children who were promoted fared at least
as well, usually better than those who were left behind.
Retention is often presented as the only alternative to "social promotion"
or promotion for "seat time." In fact, it is nothing more than a way of
pretending to do something for a child without actually doing anything.
Except make the kid pay with another year in school, surrounded by a group
of strangers, all younger than the flunked child. Some have declared that
they need the threat of retention to make children work hard in school. The
administrators and teachers who make this claim seem not to realize that it
is a stunning admission of incompetence. As if they have nothing else in
their motivational arsenals.
And, of course, these teachers and administrators--not to mention
politicians like Clinton--are left with nothing to say when presented with
the school systems of Japan and much of Europe that do not retain--or
track--children at all before the differentiated curricula of high school.
In international comparisons, these systems score as well or better than
the United States on everything except reading where only Finland scores
higher--their "social promotion" doesn't damage achievement. When I
discussed retention with Danish educators while spending a summer in
Denmark, they said they considered retention in grade a barbaric practice,
something that would be practiced only by a primitive culture that didn't
really like its children.
And it is true that retention has significant negative emotional outcomes
in this country. One study found kids rated their fear of retention in
grade just behind losing a parent or going blind. Other studies, while not
so dramatic, typically find that retained children say they are "upset" or
"sad" about it. No study has found that retention does wonders for self
So what to do for low achieving students? From an analysis of the research
data the answer seems to be this: provide these children extra assistance,
summer school if need be (something that is a lot less expensive than
having the child repeat the same grade the next year), and then promote.
Retention in grade is a practice that has no place in any society that
thinks of itself as humane, as doing best by its children.
Whenever a district or state proposes tougher rules for retention some
folks express concern about the increased cost of retaining lots of
children. They should worry. Retaining children greatly increases the
probability of their dropping out. The good citizens will get their money
back in the short term when the kids leave school before graduating, but
pay many times over when these students end up on welfare or in prison.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)