Wednesday, March 5, 2014


 . . . . . these are a few of my least favorite ineffective “educational” things . . . . .

By Josh J. Middleton, EdD

Someone chewing ice in my ear.  Drivers holding their damn iphones to their ear as they navigate traffic.  A phlebotomist who misses my clearly raised veins.  Someone dragging their fingernails down a chalkboard.  Have your attention?

Waste of time and ineffective educational practices that should produce the same clenched teeth, raised hair on neck, disturbing internal feeling:  1) a teacher announcing test scores out loud to the entire class. (If you do this, it isn’t a motivator for the bottom quartile).  2) asking a content question of a student who just read a passage out loud for the class (Research shows the student is focused on fluid reading not comprehending the passage.  3) Word searches . . . . . don’t get me started.  It can be 2:30 on a rainy Friday afternoon and I cannot justify a word search.

Last and most importantly: 4) It is time to put Retention in a time capsule and say goodbye forever except* in one specific case which I will address at the end.

Retention rates were high at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century when we moved to an industrial style education format.  As many as 75% of students were impacted at some point in their career (Kariuki & Page, 2001). 

In the 1930s and 40s retention dropped significantly as student self-esteem and social development became factors in decisions regarding retention.  The 1960s and the Space Race brought a return to retention though not without opposition.  When the Nation at Risk was released in 1983 a Gallup Poll stated that 75% of Americans believed students should not be promoted unless mastery was demonstrated (Larsen & Akmai, 2007).  In the last 25 years there have been at least 65 studies on retention conducted and all but a few point to the practice of retention as a failure.   During this time period a meta-analysis conducted by researcher John Hattie involving over 50,000 students examined factors influencing achievement in school-aged students.  Out of 138 ranked factors, 1 being most effective and 138 least effective, retention ranked 136th.  Hattie’s research is found in Visible Learning.

Other findings on retention include:

·         Retention is not helpful in any grade including kindergarten.

·         There may be short term benefits but they diminish over time.

·         Many schools do not offer a retention intervention, but rather just have the retained student repeat the grade.

·         Being retained one year almost doubles a student’s likelihood of dropping out.  Retaining a student for two years practically guarantees it.

·         There is a greater percentage of African American and Hispanic students held back than Caucasian.

·         Boys are twice as likely as girls to be retained.

·         Single parent households have greater chance of having students retained.

·         Children from poor households are two to three times more likely to have children retained.

·         Retention policies are arbitrary and not research based . . . . likely because there is no strong evidence.

·         No doubt there are political, ethical and moral dilemmas faced by school personnel in socially promoting a student who has not performed academically.

·         On the flip side, those same schools often times don’t have interventions in place for the following year to help the student master past and present material.

·         Despite not mastering material in the year where retention is considered, students who are retained are five times more likely to drop out than those who are socially promoted.

·         Grade retention is considered the single most powerful predictor of student dropout (Jimerson &Ferguson, 2007)

·         There are obvious negative emotional, social, and financial consequences to retention. 

·         Retained students are reported to have higher incidence of substance abuse.

There are many outside of the classroom and school building who do not understand the implications of retention.  Their “rugged individualism” does not translate well to all students, yet there are politicians using their bully pulpit to declare Common Core will demand every 3rd grader to be able to read at grade level or there will be retention.  The danger of politicians and policy makers, (and wealthy individuals currently sitting at the education table) is they are not relying on educators from the field before they consider such mandates.

Speak up!  Student retention does not work, the evidence is clear!*

*Okay, I will only speak anecdotally on when retention may work, and trust me there need to be a lot of planets in alignment.  I have not done research on this but I know from personal experience that when a K-2 student is suggested to be retained, AND it happens that the student’s family is to be moving to a new town/state AND both parents are committed to working with the school and at home with the student, the fresh start elsewhere can give the student the legs to be successful.  I know of four situations, three as an elementary principal, in which this was true . . . . and a fourth incident involving the author when I moved from Maryland to New York.  As a younger 2nd grader in Maryland, my parents thought another 2nd grade year in New York would be a positive intervention.  They were right, and I was forever thankful!  I’m just sorry they were not alive to see me receive my doctorate. 

1 comment:

  1. Retention is destructive because the idea that children should be grouped together by age and packed into school-box rooms and then marched along together to all retain the same things at the same time is a dumb idea. The idea takes the emphasis off learning and make it appear to be a socializing program and I believe it also promotes bullying. With the proliferation of computers with internet capacity and of computerized learning programs, teachers should come out of these old brick and mortar 'prisons' where they await child-mobs to arrive each day and have a more flexible system where children come and go according to some education plan they have worked out with parents and counselors. Children , to survive in the future knowledge-dependent world have to learn how to find where the information they want is (which teacher) and then how to get the most out of each connection. If students come to a teacher with a purpose taken from their playbook, discipline problems will disappear and they will be learning how to learn and what to do with what they learn.
    Just saying ...

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