Questions for student retention advocates

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Here are a few questions that we can ask folks who advocate for student retention…

  • In John Hattie’s highly-influential research compilation, Visible Learning, retention is one of the few factors – along with summer learning loss, student mobility, and excessive TV watching – that actually negatively impacts student learning. Why should we implement a practice that we know sends students’ learning in the wrong direction?
  • Why should a very small handful of reports from ideologically-biased think tanks outweigh the hundreds of peer-reviewed scholarly studies over 4+ decades that unanimously show how detrimental the effects of student retention are?
  • Do the reports that are cited in favor of student retention show actual long-term impacts (thus rebutting the 4+ decades of scholarly research) or just expected shorter-term achievement bumps that, as in previous studies, likely will wash out in the upper grades?
  • Do you believe that children learn at different rates?
  • Would hiring a private tutor for the next year cost less than paying for a retained student’s additional year of schooling?
  • Why should 8-year-old children bear the academic and life burden of others’ desires to hold their teachers or parents ‘accountable?’
  • Retention advocates mention all of the supports that will be put into place to help kids learn to read. Those are fantastic ideas and are much-needed. Couldn’t we do all of those without also implementing the harmful practice of retention?

What would you add to this list?

Image credit: Questions, Tim O’Brien

5 Responses to “Questions for student retention advocates”

  1. I would argue that we’re about a generation out from truly individualized learning supported by richly interactive, personalized technology. At that point, the purpose of grade levels and retention shift dramatically. The class environment pivots from a focus on uniform training to more social and interactive work projects that leverage the skills and diversity of groups, which is similar to how high performance teams operate today.

    The question for today then becomes how can schools and teachers rapidly shed the limitations and structures that were imposed upon us by limitations in the one-to-many teacher/student model – such as retention, and move more rapidly to a many-to-many model with teacher as facilitator rather than lecture source.

    Already I’ve seen great commentary that suggests we need to reverse the traditional methodology of ‘lecture in the class, work at home’ to ‘leverage world class lectures at home (ie, power of the Internet for world class lectures)’ and collaborative, guided work in the class.

  2. We need to change the educational equation and instead of making learning the variable and time the constant, we need to make time the variable and learning the constant. This is illustrated by today’s online learning programs and competency based systems. This is seldom seen in public education, and exasperated by outdated retention programs which illustrate the flaws in current public education programs.

  3. I agree with Argast…the whole idea of age-segregated learning is going out the window. Textbooks and age-based classrooms made sense when we had a factory model of education, but we now have the technology to individualize learning. Why hold a student back for a year in all subjects when they may only be failing in one or two areas, and exceeding in others? Why hold back students in a subject they excel in just because their age-mates haven’t gotten that far? (A kind of hidden retention that makes school boring for the gifted; and leaves others perpetually behind because their birth date pushes them beyond their abilities?) It is now possible to produce individualized goals and readings for each student to progress at their own rate in each curricular area. Why shouldn’t a particular student being doing grade 8 math, grade 6 reading, and grade 11 art? The whole idea of retention is based on an outmoded school design.

  4. But that would mean we would have to stop ranking and sorting kids, and THEN what would we do? 😉

    I love that we do not “do” grade levels in our school. When we have to identify levels for the sake of outside reporting, we identify as PK-8. Kids sometimes stay with the same teacher in the next year or two, but that’s because we have multi-age classrooms. The children are placed in classrooms based upon criteria other than their age only – social, emotional, etc. When the grade level is out of the equation, there is no such thing as retention.

    It also means that this is nearly impossible to do with class sizes that are so large that even a teacher with an assistant (or several) in the classroom cannot help each child. Class size is the factor we decided to adjust (we max our classes at 12) in order to provide individual attention to each and every student. No “grade level” standards and no “grade level” curriculum to get in our way.

  5. Along with some of the great points listed above, the new federal guidance* on assessment states: “No single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator, or a school.” This should especially hold true for a high stakes decision like retention.

    Retention is also tied exclusively to literacy. What would happen to a student with reading difficulties, but no concerns in math, science, etc. From my understanding, retention would also include another year of what they have already learned in that case. There is a curious punishment for the struggling reader, you will also have to repeat everything else, regardless of how well you have done in the past.

    I feel strongly that the state has gone in a positive direction with assessment and intervention for struggling readers, and we most certainly need urgency in meeting, through core instruction and intervention, the needs of those students who cannot read well. I fear punishing the students for not learning is a misguided approach which will likely lead to long term damage more than it will fix.


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