Recently, I heard about an idea being entertained by government officials in Indiana: improve reading by flunking more kids. The idea is that if a youngster reaches third grade and isn’t reading well enough, you hold the child back to give them the time to catch up.
As you might know, I’m a big supporter of the idea of increasing the amount of teaching that we provide kids: longer school days, longer school years, and, yes, even more school years. So, what of this plan to give more teaching to third-grade laggards?
Well, you also know that I believe in following the research, and here is a time that research rejects the idea of flunking. The best reviews of research that we have say that if you take a group of kids who aren’t doing well in school, and promote some of them while retaining the others…
That the kids who get promoted do best!
That’s right…. Retaining kids does not help them in the short run. During the year of retention, the kids who were held back learn more slowly than the kids who were sent ahead.
Okay, but maybe the payoff of retention doesn’t come all at once, maybe it doesn’t kick in until later, when the kids actually get their extra year of teaching. Again, the research is not supportive of retention.
It turns out that there are two factors that can make a big difference in high school graduation: one is reading level (and, this “reform” is aimed at improving reading levels), and student age. Kids who are retained once during the early years are more likely to drop out of high school. Kids who are retained twice are almost certain to drop out.
Retention may look like an extra year of teaching, but frankly it is so painful to kids that they ultimately reject the offer. If you want to help kids succeed, get mom and dad helping so that the student is doing academics away from school; put the youngster in a high quality after school and/or summer program; increase the numbers of minutes devoted to literacy teaching during the day; use textbooks, programs, professional development and any other lever that you can think of to improve reading instruction… but DO NOT fail these kids. (I believe that not because I am soft hearted, but because I am hard headed. Don’t retain because it is expensive and does not work!)
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