Going into our twenty-first century, we are finding more and more students graduating from high school not prepared to do college-level work or achieve sufficiently in entry-level jobs. The public business community is beginning to doubt whether or not public schools are capable of producing individuals who can become productive members of society. They ask the school systems how it is so many students can graduate with so few skills. One explanation is “social promotion”–that is, school systems’ practice of promoting a student to the next grade level regardless of their academic ability.
Although social promotion may seem new to us today, it has a long history. Social promotion has been a function of educational institutions for decades. Promotion of an individual no matter what his academic success has long been a standard procedure. Schools cannot appear they are failing to educate their students so they do what ever it takes to promote the student to the next grade. The do this even if there is strong evidence against them. For example, In Chicago alone more than 40,000 students failed standardized tests.. yet only a small fraction of students were marked for being held back (American Federation of Teachers, 2001).
What Standards Do Districts Use To Make Decisions on Promotion or Retention? Some policies refer to the need for students to meet state standards. But a recent AFT analysis of state standards revealed that only 17 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have standards in all four core disciplines–English, mathematics, social studies, and science–that are well grounded in content and clear and specific enough to be used as a common guide (AFT, 1997). When Austin and McCann (1992) surveyed 144 districts to determine grading practices, standards and procedures, they learned that:
Grading policies and procedures vary across districts; Policies fail to specify the criteria for determining grades and how those criteria should be applied; Few of the districts, schools, and departments provide direction specific enough to ensure consistency in grading practices; and None of the districts provides staff development to help teachers assign grades that would be consistent within schools and across the district. Most school districts have standards they try to follow to discourage social promotion. However, there is no consistency to these policies.
If school districts had a standardized set of policies that was consistent throughout all districts perhaps there would be fewer students being promoted. According to the American Federation of Teachers (2001) Ninety-five percent of public schools had some sort of guidelines or standards they went by. For students who were found to be struggling with their studies these provided at least one intervention option, for example: 56% of schools used extra homework as one of their standards used to help struggling students.
Others used an after school-coaching program, while others used various other approaches. Eliminating Social Promotion According to the American Federation of Teachers (2001) if we want to eliminate social promotion, we have to do the following: Institute policies to prevent early school failure. We need to get serious about providing excellent pre-school and all-day kindergarten programs to at-risk students. We need to reduce class size in the early grades and make sure that at-risk students have excellent reading instruction in the early grades. No child should leave third grade unable to read, and districts must have the supports in place to assure that this does not happen.
Adopt rigorous grade-by-grade standards and develop assessments and curriculum to support them. With such standards teachers will be better able to identify students in trouble, and they can seek “just in time” interventions, rather than let problems fester. Provide timely intervention to children who are falling behind–one-on-one tutoring, “double dosing,” parent counseling, extended-day and the like. Place well-trained teachers in every classroom by developing policies to attract and retain the best teachers in schools with high-risk student populations.
Make it a top priority to provide all teachers with opportunities to learn how to teach students to read. Learn from schools and districts that have successfully implemented research-based reforms. Social promotion is particularly dangerous, not only because the problems of failing students are overlooked, but also because it relays a message to every student that effort and accomplishment hardly matter. If achievement is irrelevant to student progress, then teachers’ ability to require that all students meet high standards is badly worn.
The bottom line: to end social promotion districts must propose policies and programs to put a stop to the failure of students, and to get involved when it occurs. They must examine the effectiveness of the policies and practices they introduce and build a better mousetrap if the first one did not work. These examinations should be made either in program implementation or in policy–where current efforts are ineffective. Why Students Fail In my experience I have found a very small percentage of students I work with fail because they do not have the innate capacity to acquire the complex knowledge and skills required for succeeding in school.
The remaining students did not have the skills they should have received and learned in high school. The educational system was designed to function for the whole society but many times it does not function for the individual student. As Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. ” According to the American Federation of Teachers (2001) the vast majority of students are unsuccessful in school for other, more complicated reasons. Some students don’t prosper in school because they are immature or otherwise unready for school.
Some don’t learn because we feed them with an empty spoon; they are not provided a rich curriculum and/or instructional practices that support high achievement. Others don’t acquire the necessary knowledge and skills because of excessive absenteeism. Some students achieve at minimal levels because they make little effort to acquire knowledge–either because they do not view academic achievement as crucial or instrumental to their goals, there are no consequences to failure, or other things, such as money or physical prowess are more highly esteemed.
Some students don’t learn because they have no incentive (positive or negative) to engage them in the educative process. And still others fail because of a combination of the reasons identified above. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the issue of social class differences in American education. Perhaps this is because Americans tend to think of their society as classless or that all are members of the middle class. Despite some current thinking that suggests the continuing importance of class as a defining variable in American society, class and issues of access to education based on class considerations are little analyzed
A functionalistic approach: The school system is an institution. It is a well thought out government organization that teaches our future presidents to be well-educated individuals. Or is it? Functionalism would argue that social promotion practices served a fundamental purpose. The student is put in school and progressed through the grades to eventual graduation. The school receives money for doing its job and the student receives their degree. Isnt that functional? Nikolas Luhman would say this system is functional for whom?
He would say the way the school system is set up now it simply allows the school to appear they are doing their job. It is not teaching the student what they need to know it is not functional for the student (Riedmann, 2001). Mertons theory can explain social promotion in this way: The education institution does not need to be functional for everyone in the group it may instead be functional for some of the people and dysfunctional for others (Wallace, Wolf 1999). The current educational system is very functional for the institution itself because it keeps that institution going.
By keeping education going it creates jobs for teachers, puts students into college, creates needed low income labor, and creates the need for other services to be funded, services like remedial courses at Junior College level and learning Disabilities Departments. But the education system as it stands is very dysfunctional for some people, especially the Socially Promoted individual. Conclusion We have learned from experience that neither teaching nor learning is automatic, predictable, or effortless. We have also learned that social promotion and retention–the most common reactions to student failure–are insufficient to the need.
Even so, there is reason for optimism. We are aware things don’t have to be this way. Around the country–in some of the poorest, toughest neighborhoods–there are schools that are effective, and very effective. Many of these schools have achieved success by implementing replicable programs, specially designed to raise the accomplishment levels of struggling students. Unless the needs of Americas diverse social classes are addressed, this community of socially promoted individuals will be locked out from participation on the basis of ignorance and the world will not be enriched by their diverse contributions.