Awareness :: Re-Thinking Retention

Dear Fellow Educators,

As April and May approach, a lot of discussion turns to planning for the following year, with particular emphasis on promoting or retaining students in their current grade. In the last month this year, I’ve had more conversations than ever with parents, students, and educators about retention. I know it’s an incredibly divisive topic in education. I know several incredibly passionate, caring teachers who are proponents of retention. However, to be honest, it’s really amazing and incredibly disappointing to me that we’re still having these discussions in 2017. But then again, maybe I need to stop being surprised by the things we’re still discussing as a society.

On retention, the life stories and experience of millions of teachers and students have been published for us to learn from. This research from the past 40 years has shown us the following:

Positive Effects of Retention:
– A few studies have found that retention may have a positive short-term benefit of approx. 1-2 school years or less

Negative Effects of Retention:
– Retained 6th graders had lower achievement growth than similar students who were not retained
– 3rd graders struggled during the repeated year, had higher rates of special education placement, and two years later showed no advantage over those who had been promoted
– Students who drop out are 5x more likely to have been retained than those who graduated
– In 1996 to 1997 there were about 46 million children enrolled in public schools in the United States with an average cost per pupil expenditure of $5,923 (NCES, 1999b). Each year, about 7%-10% of students are retained. Today, costs today are closer to $7,000-$8,000 per student, and about 50 million students are enrolled. That means we spend $26 billion EACH YEAR on an intervention that has been proven repeatedly to not be effective for longterm student growth. Taxpayers should be infuriated! Can you imagine how many interventions supported by research we could afford for $26 billion!?
– Children who are retained tend to feel more poorly about their capabilities, score lower on measures of personal and psychological adjustment, and display more discipline problems.
– Interviews with retained students show that they felt angry or sad about the retention and feared the reaction of family and friends
– School failure has also been linked to participation in health-risk behaviors (cigarette use, alcohol use, and weapons-related violence) for adolescents

The bottom line is that evidence tells us that students who repeat a grade are no better off, and are often worse off. So, if research keeps showing us that retention is, at best, the same as promoting students, and at worst, harmful to students, why on Earth are we still using it as an intervention to address a variety of issues from academic deficits, to poor work habits or absenteeism?

Here are a few reasons I’ve heard:

They’ll fall further and further behind!

I agree. If a child is academically not grasping concepts in their current level, promotion with no support won’t help. We need to look at the reasons WHY a child’s achievement is not up to par. Are there overarching mental health or motivation issues that need to be addressed? Is absenteeism a problem? Should they be eligible for special education services? Just passing a kid on year after year won’t fix these problems, but research tells us that neither will retaining them. It’d be like treating Strep Throat with Tylenol. It might seem like it helps the symptoms for awhile, but it certainly isn’t going to treat the bacterial infection in the long run – and it may delay the use of the more effective intervention of an antibiotic while we think we’re fixing the problem.

It feels like I’m doing something effective. It feels good.

Retention is easy. Most times, it’s a conversation, or a meeting, or a form that is signed and you’re done. The “intervention” takes literally minutes – and it feels good! Either we think that the kid will get what they need from repeating, or it feels good to finally think that we’ve “shown them” that laziness doesn’t pay. It’s a lot easier to retain a kid than it is to deliver behavioral or mental health counseling, time-consuming, intensive academic interventions, or home visits/truancy interventions. But we shouldn’t do things as educators because it “feels” right or is easier or more convenient for us. We should do it because research has shown us it IS right, even if it’s more work or takes longer to fix the problem permanently rather than slapping a bandaid on it.

They’re in special ed, but they’re just not making gains! Wouldn’t an extra year help?

Special education is a completely separate beast. In the United States, students can receive services until their 21st birthday – regardless of the grade level they’re in. They don’t get to finish the year, pass Go, or collect $200. The day they turn a particular age determined by the state (21 in Illinois), they’re done with public education. Thus, “using up” lots of years of eligibility in elementary school doesn’t make sense. We want to “push them along” to high school so they can enroll in work/job training program and life skills assistance at the high school level! The reason students are eligible for special education is because they’re NOT where they’re supposed to be. They have a disability that prevents them from making progress like their peers. An extra year isn’t going to change that; specialized instruction might!

The parent needs to know we’re serious

The potential downsides expressed above are quite a price for a child to have to pay for their parent’s perceived lack of _______ (attendance at meetings, getting the kid meds, help with homework, getting the kid to school, etc.) Bottom line, the child should not be held responsible for parent choices.

The kid needs to know we’re serious

More than likely, the child you’re talking about is between the ages of 6-13 – a child whose brain is not developed, and who lacks the problem solving and planning skills of an adult. The only reason a child would view retention as a consequence for something is because you’ve set it up that way (If you don’t turn in more work or start showing more effort, you’ll repeat the grade. If you don’t work harder to learn your math facts, you’ll repeat 2nd grade again). If you don’t make promotion a reward for hard work, it won’t be.

But the parent wants retention!

The parent wants their child to succeed. They want their kid to improve academically, behaviorally, and/or socially fit in with their peers. They want their daughter or son to do well in school, maybe to graduate or go to college. It’s our job as a professional that we’re doing everything we can to make this happen. What a parent who begs for retention wants is help. They think retention is that help, but we know better what actual help is. The professional in us needs to give it.

How is that next year teacher going to look at me if I send this student on?

I’m really saddened that I even need to address this one. Teaching has never been, and should never be, about looking good in front of colleagues. And if we as a society stop viewing a child’s academic success or failure as a direct result only of a teacher’s ability, and rather, as a piece of the very complicated puzzle involving a child’s home life, personal factors, socioeconomic status, etc., we’d realize academic difficulties are a lot bigger than a single teacher – and a lot harder to address than by simply repeating a grade.

But I had students before/I had a friend who was retained and it did wonders for them!

Ultimately, educators don’t get to see the consequences of that decision when the student gets older. It’s the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon. Very few elementary teachers teach the same students in high school. We may think kids are doing better, and maybe they did for a year, but they don’t long term. And just because a few people had positive experiences doesn’t mean retention was what caused it. Maybe that child finally became eligible for special education services. Maybe your friend received private tutoring. Maybe they clicked personality-wise with a different teacher in their repeat year. This is why we need research. Personal stories aren’t scientific. Research takes all these factors into consideration across thousands and thousands of students to figure out WHICH variable caused the positive change. (Hint: it’s not retention)

Yeah, but those researchers aren’t in MY classroom. They don’t see MY students.

The beliefs of educators are not easily swayed by research. Educators seem to base their decisions on previous experience and influence from their peers. Shame on us, educational colleagues. Shame on us. If a doctor prescribed ineffective treatments for his patients, he’d be held liable for malpractice. We need to hold ourselves to a similar (or higher!) standard. Our children deserve better. Research means that studies looked at hundreds or thousands of ACTUAL students in classrooms across the country. Believe it or not, our students are unfortunately not unique in their struggles. There are students across the country with similar difficulties, issues, and backgrounds – and we already know what helps: smaller classes, multimodal instruction, strong home-school-community connections, teacher professional development, positive relationships, research-based instructional techniques, etc. etc. etc. Are we doing these things?

I don’t have time to read research; I’m too busy teaching children.

Amen to that! Let’s hire more educators so we could all have time to read and discuss research!

But you’re not a classroom teacher; you can’t possibly understand.

Sigh…you’re right. I’m not. I’m a school social worker. I have the utmost respect for teachers and could never be a teacher in a million years! I don’t personally experience the frustration of working with a student in the classroom who keeps getting further and further behind academically, but I do see those students in a 1:1 or small group setting. I see a different side of them. I hear the things they don’t want you or their parents to know. And I pick up the pieces after another student makes a comment to them in the hallway about being too tall for their grade, or about being stupid. I meet retained kids for the first time and, never fail, one of the first things they tell me is something like, “I’m in 5th grade, but I’m supposed to be in 6th because I got held back in 1st grade.” Over the course of working with hundreds of students, I have NEVER once had a student talk about retention as a positive point in their schooling. But you know what? You’re right. After all, I’m not a teacher. What do I know? My single experience shouldn’t determine what other teachers do. THE COLLECTIVE billions of years of experience over thousands of teachers, social workers, students, parents, and administrators should. Let’s stop pretending like the personal experience of any one of us is good enough evidence to make decisions that permanently affect the lives of children before they’re even out of elementary school.

This is why we have research. Research combines together these experiences of millions to find patterns. It’s the reason doctors don’t use leeches on you anymore if you’re sick! A few doctors used to think it worked for their patients, but we found out by analyzing hundreds of people that it wasn’t effective (thank goodness!)

 

If you have a few extra minutes this week (which I know you do because you’ve already been reading for 5-10!), here’s a few articles that cite some of the major research reviews and meta analyses (i.e. studies that look at numerous results and combine them together):

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall

National Association of Elementary School Principals

So what DO we need to do?

“We believe the answer lies more in providing effective instruction…District leadership should seek to identify research-based education interventions designed to provide effective instruction for struggling yet promoted students rather than assume that another year in the same grade will correct achievement problems. These students face unique challenges, including mastery of previous material while simultaneously attempting to learn new material; given the previously documented struggles, they will require additional attention and different instructional strategies.” (Tingle, Schoeneberger & Algozzine, 2012)

Smaller classes, multimodal instruction, strong home-school-community connections, teacher professional development, positive relationships, research-based instructional techniques, etc. etc. etc. Are we doing these things? Are we spending our money on these things, or are we spending $7,000-$8,000 per child per retention on something that research says doesn’t work? And if we say we are doing these things that improve student achievement and outcomes…are we really sure? Are we willing to bet the lives of our students on it? Because we bet their futures on it every single day.

And after all, we all know what it’s called if we do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.