Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rationality on Social Promotion is the Missing Ingredient

I really take issue with the fact that the writer of this piece opposes efforts to end social promotion. Social promotion is a big problem in many schools.
----anon comment on my post the other day Unsocialized Promotion

Anon missed the point. But then again this is the August doldrums and I probably wasn't too clear.

The point of that piece was that these are phony attempts to end social promotion and in fact under BloomKlein social promotion has soared through credit recovery, cheating, easy tests, drive by diplomas and all the other goodies that come with the mayoral control package which politicizes education.

The claims that somehow schools before BloomKlein were engaging in massive social promotion based on my experiences and contacts was simply not true.

As a self-contained classroom elementary school teacher during those years 1969-1985 I saw all aspects of the situation. My school only had social promotion in the graduating grade so 6th graders weren't left behind except for special situations. But in all cases, the policy was to hold them back at least once before they got to 6th grade. Sometimes they were left back twice.

Now I know there are people who say twice is not enough. How do you keep a kid who would be an 8th grader in a class of 5th graders forever if necessary? Anyone who works in a school knows that is insane.

All research as Leonie Haimson points out (The Mayor commits educational malpractice, once again) shows that holding kids over doesn't work in most cases and does more harm. So the case can be made that holding kids back at all is counterproductive. But I don't go that far and do believe some kids need more time.

The solution, given the rigid school structure we have, is to target kids behind and do what is necessary to bring them up. If they are resistant to doing any work or anything to help themselves I don't have easy answers. Sometimes leaving them back has the effect of throwing water in their faces - I had a few in the 5th grade that ended back in my class the next year and did mature in that way and the extra year made a difference.

The problem is we are locked into a graded system. From my earliest years I was against putting kids in grades as opposed to multi-graded clusters where there was a mixture of kids over a few grades and older kids could teach younger ones. Naturally, a class of this nature can be unteachable. So the 2nd part of my progressive reform movement (contrary to critics, we have never been status quoers) would be to put around 100 multi-graded kids in a cluster with about 6 teachers who would stay with them for 3 years. More another time.
End Digression

The BloomKlein extension of decision making on whether kids should be left back in the 4th and 6th grades moves that choice away from the school level. I've always been for the teacher – at least those with some experience (I know, I know, they barely exist).

I used to fight my own principal over her taking the basic decision making out of the hands of the teachers and making a blanket school policy for all that override the judgements of the teachers who worked most closely with the kids. Before she took over, we used to meet with out AP and be able to fight for the kids we felt holding over would not help. She took over in 1978 and instituted many of the test prep stuff we are seeing today and even went so far as to dictate what materials we could use in our classrooms.

I look at that as the beginning of the end for my sense of control over my classroom and it eventually led to my no longer wanting to teach self-contained classes, the true grunt work of teaching. Thus, in many ways me real teaching career ended in 1985, after which I became a cluster teacher. I never regained that passion or sense of involvement I had for the 16 self-contained classes I taught. (That experience is the reason Ed Notes was first out of the box in the UFT in 1996 talking about the evils of high stakes testing.)

The point is that the decision should be made at the teacher/school level, not by a dumb politically motivated policy by the mayor.


  1. Norm:

    I do not support social promotion and never will. I have seen too many undeserving students get passed along and fall farther and farther behind and eventually drop out of school. However, I agree with you that the use of credit recovery, dumbed down tests, and grade changing is simply a stealth form of social promotion.

    What we need is small class sizes and paying quality teachers more money to work with these "students of need" as a start.

  2. This is a complicated problem, with no simple solutions. Let me tell you my experience as a high school science teacher, licensed in physics and general science, but also teaching other science subjects, such as Regents biology and earth science, out of license.

    In the setup that we have, where students are (now, increasingly) required to take the regents examination at the end of the year, we have the following problems:

    (1) even for those who have not been socially promoted, there is a terrible shortage of time -- the curricula are crammed, and increasingly incoherent -- requiring, at the least, three terms, rather than the usual two, to teach and learn in a halfway satisfactory fashion;

    (2) for those who have been simply "passed on", it is a disaster, affecting firstly their own sanity (if they engage) and secondly that of the other students and teachers. Such students may either retreat into quiet despair or disengagement or else act up out of frustration.

    (3) a conscientious teacher is in a real bind; attempting to get extra time is like hitting your head against a brick wall -- in any case, the better prepared students and their parents might resent it, in the unlikely event that this time is granted;

    the idea that students can teach other students can only go so far -- the material is complex and unfamiliar, the pace is fast, and there is no substitute for instruction from an experienced teacher -- other students can help as tutors or through cooperative work, but they are not teachers, nor do they know the subject -- or else they would not be students;

    the teacher who slows down to help the slower students is appreciated by them but may run into problems with those who prefer, or are able to manage, a faster pace.

    The idea that you put forward of several teachers remaining with a multi-level class for three years is great, but, as you can see from my mention of my efforts to get an extra term (or even an extra period a week) akin to asking for cake when even bread is not available.

    (4) without endorsing the extent of the current emphasis on math and reading, there is no doubt that these two subjects are critical in HS science classes -- the first (math), especially, in physics and chemistry, and to some extent in earth science, the second (reading), especially in biology and earth science.

    As an example, newly immigrant Chinese students, who barely can understand, let alone speak, English, often find themselves in Regents science classes. If, as often happens, their math is strong, they can still survive in physics (if a class in this subject, that appears to be going extinct in the NY city high schools, can be found for them). But they have a very hard time in biology, where they struggle with dictionaries, paper and electronic. They are, of course, completely lost in social studies.

    This is not to suggest that there is any simple solution to this problem. In other countries, I don;t believe this problem has reached the depth it has here. In India, I remember that, every year, from elementary grades through high school, 1-2 out of the thirty or so students in a class would be held back. But the whole atmosphere was different. School was something people wanted to attend, and not paying attention in class, or not doing the classwork or homework, were not things that we could even imagine.

    As Norm points out, cheating of all sorts subverts rigid rules of promotion. The input of teachers, both as to what is needed for genuine (and, one must allow, measurable) progress, and as to standards for promotion, and the extent of their rigidity, is essential, but lacking.

  3. There's no happy median with respect to ending social promotion(SP) and finding the right strategies that will be best for those students left behind. If a child is required to repeat a grade, then a program MUST be in place to help that child succeed. However, the only real problem here is the fact that BloomKlein are ONLY focusing on ending SP at the elementary school grade level. By doing this it will appear that Bloomklein has made a difference in NYC schools and the grades that are considered the benchmark grades will not be affected by their policy decision. As always, the obvious wool-over-the-stakeholders'-eyes will be used and individuals with no children and the vote-for-me politicians will ooh-and-aah about the mayor's control over the schools and its psuedo-success. Yet, social promotion is alive and thriving at the HS level where a check-the-student's-pulse will provide him/her with a diploma. Why isn't the mayor addressing that issue and ending SP at that level. If Bloomberg is so sure that his mayoral control have been so successful and the graduation rate has truly increased, then he should not worry about paying an education restoration to the state for each student that graduates via credit recovery and is required to take remedial courses in college. I think this will ensure to keep the mayor honorable and accountable - a quid pro quo.

  4. Anon., I love that idea, about "restoration to the state" for each kid who has to take a remedial course in college. Make sure you fine Bloomberg personally, though, and not the City.

    Chaz, more money to work with students in need?
    First of all, as I've mentioned so many times before, HS music classes have had 50 on register since time immemorial. (Gym, too, but that's not as much written work.) 50 kids is half again the normal amount of teacher work: grading, report cards, attendance, phonecalls, etc.
    Supposedly teachers are teaching to the max for 45 min. per class: whether it be sp. ed. class of 8 kids or the music class of 50. If you talk money, it should only be for after-hours work or we're all be lost weighing what we do.
    (PS: people argue that 50 don't always show up. True, but I've subbed sp. ed. classes where only 1 or 2 show up; and regular classes where only let's say 15 of 34 show up.)

    Secondly, all kids are "in need," from the poorer learners to the excellent. I would love to have the time in a classroom to give the fabulous thinkers "what they need," because they rarely get enough of that analytical, interactive, probing think time that they need when we're dealing with behaviorals, ELLs, and lower functioning students. Mostly, we never get the time to teach them to their levels.
    Not to mention the ELLs to theirs.
    Or the erroneously mainstreamed . . .
    Or the mid-year entrants . . .

  5. Chaz
    I can understand the outrage of a high school teacher, but we in elementary school take a different view. Young kids who try real hard and are falling short need the assistance and not the punishment of being left back. It is a different story for kids who just will do nothing. They have other issues and leaving them back doesn't help other than give them another year where they will obsorb something. As a teacher, we hated to see them get away with stuff and used the threat of holding them over to keep them in line.
    All the research shows it is useless.

    But one point I forgot to make was the brilliant strategy for test gamers that my principal discovered back in 1979- leave as many kids back in teh first grade as possible and you get the "benefit" for the next 5 years of having them take their grade tests a year older than they would have been. They do learn something in that extra year and thus the school scores look better. Again the main interest here was not in helping the kids but in gaming the test.

  6. Like most of the "problems" plaguing public education and begging for "reform" there are no answers under the capitalist economy we are bound to. That's why it, like so many other things, is so complicated. The solution awaits a fundamental transformation to socialism.

  7. Norm,

    You are an excellent writer for what you call progressive and what I call intelligent education.

    I just want to point out a little more bluntly some of the things that need to be said.

    On the topic of "social promotion." When business people and politicians get involved in education there is always an agenda. The first thing on that agenda is * self promotion *.

    In the abstract, Education is a Paper Tiger for the Business People & Politicians.
    It is just so easy to set up false expectations, false standards, assign blame erroneously, etc. (Got to give their marketing twist credit "Ignore reality and just blame the teachers." That was great. Can we do the same thing when products break and services fail?)

    Social Promotion is just a Paper Tiger Cub.
    Think: First, make sure the teachers who grade the tests grade the tests more liberally. Next, make the tests much easier. Finnaly, declare an end to social promotion. Result: Problem solved.
    Yeah right.

    In reality when one combines Education, Politics & Business what do you get?
    Oh, please! It's simple!
    Sloganeering and Soundbites that scream "We know how to milk that cash cow best, baby!"
    Provide less while claiming that it's new and improved and better than ever.

  8. JW
    Thank you for the suggestion I made regarding the mayor's education restoration to the state. Did you read today's article in about the mayor providing six community colleges $50M to help students prepare for the demands of global competition? Or is the mayor finally realizing that his mayoral control of schools brought about the unprecedented graduation of too many unprepared students and this allocation of money is a form of education restoration? Hmmm! Damage control - it's an election year!

  9. Anon, I didn't catch that. Thank you so much for the alert.
    What a piece of work he is.


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