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Several reforms discussed briefly

Retention of failing students in early grades is good educational policy and cost-effective

March 6, 2000

Even in a world of abuse by statistics, the example provided by Susan Ohanian, An Antisocial Idea , The Nation, March 6,2000, in her defense of the practice of "social promotion" for failing students is conspicuous. Ohanian argues categorically against retaining students by stating " the probability that students who repeat two grades will drop out is close to 100 percent."

She says nothing at all to counter the obvious point that most, if not all, of these students would have dropped out anyway. Even had they continued with their age-group, the benefit to themselves is highly questionable, since they would be unprepared for the classwork at the next grade level. For their classmates, disruptive behavior by socially-promoted students who are continuing to fail academically is a serious detriment. Teachers spend a disproportionate amount of class time disciplining reluctant students who are in over their heads.

Promoting students who have performed below their intellectual ability for a year or more is doing them no favor. It is likely that continued academic failure will do more harm to their self-esteem than retention would have. Ohanian's reference to retention as "sorting children into winners and losers" is utterly wrong-headed. Instead, retention is offering the student an opportunity, at public expense, to make up for past mistakes, to mature a bit, and to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in later grades. Sophisticated educational theory aside, Ohanian recounts the bottom line for offering all failing students a second chance in Los Angeles was 350,000 children retained at a cost of $5,000 to $7500 per student.

Since it is too late for retention to do its best work for most high school-age students, the program does not have to include all failing students. Neither do the retention standards have to be implemented most strictly all at once. In elementary grades, probably beginning in third grade, the effects on a retained student's classmate friends, who have also been reluctant to learn, but whose deficit is not so great, the ripple effect will improve attitudes toward studying and trying to learn. The examples of the worst cases of underperforming students being retained will rapidly change the widespread cultural resistance toward education.

If we have learned nothing else from Bill Clinton's example, the opportunity to seize upon a good idea should not be missed just because it is also being promoted by conservatives. Retention may be old-fashioned and may be opposed by educational theorists who are overly concerned about the effects on retained children's self esteem, however it is clearly much better to hurt their feelings early than to allow them to reach high school when it may be too late, and far more expensive, to remediate their deficits.