Strict retention comes, goes; LA, NYC wary

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The idea of ending automatic social promotion comes and goes in American education. Today, new versions of the concept are taking root in Chicago and a handful of other cities. Yet in other major metropolises, notably Los Angeles and New York, administrators are still mulling the issue.

Officially, policies against social promotion are on the books in 35 of 48 big-city school systems, according to a survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Council of the Great City Schools. While students are routinely held back, especially in urban districts, it’s rarely done with the kind of deliberate plotting Chicago has done.

Cincinnati is among the exceptions. Since 1992, the public schools there have held back students whose work in major subjects fails to meet district standards. Those with a low overall rating in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades are sent to summer school and, if unsuccessful there, must repeat. The retention rate is high, between 20 and 35 percent of the system’s 49,000 students, depending on the grade. But Cincinnati school officials say the system’s emerging instructional strategy—involving teams of teachers following children across several years—cushions the fall.

Those who flunk a second year— currently, 500 students—are siphoned into small, full-time “plus” classes, where the teacher works solely on standards that haven’t been mastered. Those who meet the standards are directed back to a regular classroom; those who don’t either get directed to special education or stay put. “But if a child keeps failing, the teacher has to show us why,” says Kathleen Ware, Cincinnati’s assistant superintendent for strategic planning.

In Durham, N.C., 5th- and 8th-graders who bomb a state-mandated competency test have to attend summer school. Currently, principals may retain 8th-graders who are unsuccessful in summer school; next school year, principal discretion will apply to 5th-graders as well. Every child who is retained receives an individual remediation plan; it’s up to each school to decide what treatment is appropriate. Tutoring and Saturday academies are among the options.

Corpus Christi, Tex., follows a similar procedure, except students are retained on the basis of a required minimum grade of 70 in reading, math, science and social studies.

Biggest flop

The country’s biggest experiment in retention started in 1981 in the country’s biggest school system, New York City. Frank Macchiarola, a new chancellor, initiated the Promotional Gates program, which required low-scoring 4th- and 7th-graders to repeat those grades. The repeaters were assigned to classes of 20 or fewer students, along with specially trained teachers and new materials. The cost the first year was some $40 million. The holdovers initially evidenced higher reading and math scores, according to a subsequent Board of Education study. But three years later, the increase was gone, and the high school dropout rate among the held-back 7th-graders had started to climb, the study found.

“Another problem was that about 5,000 kids ended up repeating their grades a second time,” says Ray Domanico, an early evaluator who is now executive director of the Public Education Association, a New York advocacy group. “The system tried to create a program for those double holdovers, but by then a new superintendent had come in. In time, no one was paying attention to Promotional Gates.”

In 1990, Joseph Fernandez, then the chancellor, ended the program in large part because it had led to more dropouts. Fully 40 percent of those retained before high school left before graduating, compared with 25 percent of a control group. “The program may have been well-intentioned,” said Fernandez. “But over all, it has not worked.”

“I, for one, learned from this,” says Domanico. “It’s true that you don’t do kids a favor by pushing them ahead without the skills. On the other hand, if their teacher is inadequate and their school is lousy, you don’t do them any favor by making them repeat.”

Currently, New York City schools, with a massive 1.1 million students and 32 community-governed subdistricts, has a looser promotion policy. “There are standards at every grade, but there’s no automatic kick-in,” says William Casey, the Board of Education’s chief executive for program development and dissemination. “It all depends on test scores and teacher input.” Casey says school officials are discussing strengthening promotion rules, “but nobody wants to have a knee-jerk reaction to this without having a well-thought-out plan.” He prefers to stress new initiatives by Chancellor Rudy Crew to add after-school and reading instruction for kids in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

“We don’t have a retention policy,” says John Liechty, middle-school director for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which, at 680,000 students, is the country’s second largest school system. Social promotion is so pervasive that only 1 percent of 1st- through 8th-graders were retained during the 1995-96 academic year, according to Liechty.

As with New York, Los Angeles is looking to bolster its impact in the early grades through extended days, Saturday classes, summer school and lowered class sizes. Liechty says he and other administrators are watching what develops in Chicago, but with a cynical eye. “Everybody wants to jump on the retention bandwagon now,” remarks Liechty, “but all the research points to the fact that retention fails. It’s kind of like corporal punishment. Every swat you give as a teacher, it may make you feel terrific, but you aren’t getting better results. It’s the same way with retention.”

Liechty himself dropped out of high school—his diploma came through adult school, and he continued on to earn a couple master’s degrees. He voices a sympathy for retainees: “When you fail in school, the adult world labels you, and as a child you internalize that perception. It’s the worst feeling in the world, and you begin to do things outside the norm—joining a gang or indulging in bizarre behavior—to get your self-esteem back.”

So far, the evidence is mixed on whether latter-day retention is effective. The percentage of Durham 8th-graders, including repeaters, who scored in the upper levels on state tests rose 7 percent in reading and 6 percent in math, an improvement district spokesperson Julie Marshall ties to retention. In Corpus Christi, scores are up over the last two years on achievement tests taken by middle schoolers, says Sandra Lanier-Lerma, assistant superintendent for instruction and operations, a jump she credits to increased retention. But in Cincinnati, the high-school dropout rate has edged higher each year since 1993, although Kathleen Ware insists a new Ohio proficiency exam has been a factor in the rise.

Meanwhile, in late February, President Clinton instructed Secretary of Education Richard Riley in a memorandum to follow the lead of cities such as Chicago and Cincinnati and come up with guidelines to crimp social promotion. “As more states and localities move to end social promotions, we must help them design and implement approaches that will succeed,” said the President.