In previous posts (here and here) I shared how I felt Joel Klein’s recent Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools presents a remarkable amount of relevant, readable grist for educators’ profession-improving mills. Here, I’ll reflect specifically on another idea from Klein’s book that the education enterprise would be wise to revisit and rethink their typical stance on: social promotion or, simply per Klein, ‘sending kids on to the next grade even when they [are] failing academically.’ (p. 144)
First, please know that the idea of ending social promotion is not presented by Klein as a crucial or absolutely recommended improvement strategy. It is but one fundamental change he put in motion as chancellor of NYC schools. (His stance on the matter, in fact, is brought up almost incidentally in Lessons of Hope, discussed only in light of how it connected to a 2004 contract dust-up with the UFT.)
Still, the following pieces alone leap out as notable and reflection-worthy: first, that Klein and Mayor Bloomberg recognized — using, refreshingly, the commonest of sense — that NYC schools’ then-existing social promotion policies and practices were hurting kids’ ultimate chances at success; next, that this recognition drove them into the danger to act on them. For in most educational settings, rethinking grade-promotion policies and guidelines is a place few policy leaders are willing to go — especially when it may mean that hundreds or thousands of the system’s students stand to be held back.
Even in individual cases on the ground, administrators and teachers direct students to repeat grade levels only under the most profound circumstances. The potential trade-offs (i.e., the apparently irreparable damages to held-back students’ self-concepts, engagement levels, and subsequent socio-emotional developments), the thinking goes, are simply not worth the risk. And these trade-offs are so strongly accepted as sure things by so many in education that the idea of making a student repeat an early grade for academic reasons is viewed as only a few rungs above corporal punishment on the enterprise’s Ladder of Shameful Anachronisms.
As mentioned in earlier posts, though, a huge part of Lessons of Hope‘s — and of Joel Klein’s chancellorship’s — value comes from that Klein didn’t rise through the education establishment to his point of leadership, making him less likely to be influenced by the establishment’s long-accepted (but upside-down) truths, and more likely to follow his own study and common sense.
(Aside, before continuing: I almost never see minimal in-school experience as a good thing in an education executive. No matter how sharp, charismatic, hard-charging, or impressively degreed they might be, I’ve only known them to lack nuance and genuine understandings of education’s deeply grooved practical flaws.* Simply, Klein separates himself from this crew by deciding and acting much more rationally, therefore making his ideas — especially in light of the multiple positive outcomes his policies generated for kids — worthy of much more serious consideration.)
And, applied baldly, Klein’s common sense is so striking as to make any other way sound just stupid. See, for example, his position on social promotion (‘A child who doesn’t master third-grade work is unlikely to learn what’s required in fourth grade’, [p. 144]), and a supporting idea providing additional drive (‘…one of the key problems with K-12 education in America is that the education schools all push out the notion that “a kid needs self-esteem to achieve,” while…it was the other way around. “A kid needs to achieve in order to build self-esteem,”‘ [p.54]). Throw in that NYC’s constituencies didn’t take long to get behind this common sense (‘In subsequent years, we were able to end social promotion in all grades, from four to eight, virtually without notice or objection’ [p. 147]), and it seems fairly ridiculous that more of education isn’t rethinking the ‘whys’ of their social promotion policies so they can move to the alternate ‘whats’ and attendant ‘hows’ of implementing the new whats.
It seems especially ridiculous that we’re not rethinking our options in this area when one considers how, done any other way (demanding and designing heaps of academic interventions, for example, or ineffective in-class instructional differentiation), the positive results simply aren’t materializing.
I have worked with many schools hoping to accelerate growth with students significantly behind. Accordingly, I’ve seen lots of well-intentioned and complex (if not particularly well-designed, as they often forego providing what the struggling students actually need) interventions be constructed for the neediest students. They cost millions in materials and personnel, and they often yield little or less before moving the still-far-behind students on to subsequent, more academically demanding, steps.
I’ve also worked as an administrator in a school (The International School of Minnesota, part of the SABIS network) that was deeply committed to demonstrations of competency, no matter how much time it took. Indeed: we were committed to the tune of making upper-school students repeat full courses when not meeting prescribed proficiency bars, and of assigning students to required help groups and re-testing them when they fell short on periodic formative assessments. Under this unwavering premium on mastery, our students were able to reach academic heights I’d previously thought unreachable for people their age. And though it was a private school with a typically private-school clientele and level of academic commitment, a similar practico-philosophical model has gotten eye-popping, achievement-gap-closing results in public charters around the U.S. (A flipside benefit of this genuinely competency-based model, too, was that students able to demonstrate they were beyond the grade-delineated tracks could jump to higher levels than their age would have sentenced them to elsewhere. I personally promoted several students to higher course — and even full grade — placements as a result.)
In our competency-focused, improved-standards-driven age, we must create time and extra-practice-providing structures that put our practice where our ‘growth mindset’ is. We must accept that growing such mindsets alone will not suffice, and we must accept that until we create structures to provide more time for our neediest students to reach necessary competencies, those students will not magically jump onto track. Joel Klein and his administration created this extra time through ending social promotion, while others (like SABIS schools) coordinate a much more fluid idea of grade levels according to students’ proficiency. Here’s to hoping more schools and districts open the conversation to create the right answers for their kids.
* Yes, sub-five-years-working-in-schools TFA alums currently in district leadership positions, I’m looking at you.