To retain or not to retain, that is the question.

We have a Dean of Students, Dan C., who handles discipline in G-Town. He and I had an interesting discussion this morning about retention. It’s not the first time we’ve had this discussion and it’s generally the same every time.

About two years ago, a considerable number of students were retained in the middle school because they failed multiple subjects. Dan’s point of view is that this consequence for lack of effort and achievement sends a powerful message to these students and to others who may be barely passing. My point of view is that it primarily increases the chances that the retained students will drop out. Dan argues that we can’t measure what effect it has on the students on the borderline and also that those retained students would likely have dropped out anyway.

My argument about the preponderance of research indicating the negative consequences does not convince Dan that retention is a poor choice. The National Association of School Psychologists cite the following in a position paper on retention:

Research examining the overall effects of 19 empirical studies conducted during the 1990s compared outcomes for students who were retained and matched comparison students who were promoted. Results indicate that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Again, Dan argues that this does not measure what impact retention may have on those students in danger of being retained, or who are barely passing. This position paper by the NASP is sufficient evidence for me that retained students are in more serious danger of dropping out based on retention alone. Do we sacrifice the retained students in order to teach the rest of the student population a lesson?

I’m not arguing for social promotion. Here’s where Dan and I agree. If we are saying students aren’t adequately prepared for ninth grade, what are we going to do differently? Just repeating the same thing they already failed at is not likely to help. We need a bridge year or semester or something. And when do we examine the underlying reasons the students are failing? I am hard pressed to believe that it’s just because they refuse to do the work and we need to teach them a lesson, a work ethic. I just don’t believe that children choose to fail, rarely, if ever. Where then is our responsibility to go back and evaluate our curriculum and instruction? Our remedial programs? Our early identification of students who need additional support?

And still I have students entering 9th grade this year at 15 or 16 years of age. I’m not talking about one or two kids.  How will I possibly motivate them to stick around until they are 19 or 20 years old for a diploma? I would consider an accelerated program in high school to get them through in three years, as Dan wisely suggests, but they most likely require AIS and remediation and extra time, not less time.

I come back to the responsibility of instruction and programs that is mine as the principal and is detailed in this report by reading specialist Debra Johnson.

Meaningful Learning

Skilled teachers intensify learning by providing authentic instruction and meaningful assignments while holding high expectations for all students. Such assignments deal with the significant concepts of a discipline, incorporate higher-order thinking skills, are connected to the “real world,” and allow substantial time for discussion and idea sharing among students (Peterson, 1995). Furthermore, teachers can employ several learning models to create active learning environments that reflect a shift in the relationships among teachers, students, and knowledge. In these environments, students work together to frame their own questions and investigate them. Active environments require collaboration and communication, and encourage more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information than do traditional classrooms (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000). Active learning environments require students to take responsibility for their own learning and develop strategies for learning (Costello, 1996). Instruction in active environments emphasizes depth of learning rather than breadth of learning (Peterson, 1995).

Is this the kind of learning our retainees experienced? Did we do enough? Did they get the best instruction and intervention along the way? Did we teach them to read for comprehension? Did we involve the necessary support personnel? Did we form relationships with the students and their families? Can we ever do enough? I guess when our graduation rate is in the 95%-100% range instead of only 79%, then perhaps I’ll be satisfied. The problem for me is that they’re not statistics, they’re kids who I know, and I also know they’re much better off entering the world with a diploma.

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