Is Social Promotion Crippling Our Children's Future? The Debate

Is Social Promotion Crippling Our Children's Future? The Debate
Should children be allowed to progress to the next grade when their test scores are inadequate? Learn about social promotion in public schools and why it is sparking a heated debate in today's education reform movement.
Social promotion, the act of promoting children to the next grade even when their test scores don't support such a move, is a regular practice in many schools today. Educators that support social promotion point to data that suggests that students are retained, or held back a grade, are more likely to develop behavioral problems and drop out of school before graduation. But is social promotion a viable alternative? There are many experts on both sides of the issue, making it difficult to ascertain the best way to handle students who are falling behind – or falling through the cracks.
 
Why Social Promotion?
 
Social promotion allows students to advance to the next school grade, even when their test scores and overall academic achievement don't prove a student's preparedness for the next academic year. According to a recent report in Education Week, social promotion was adopted as the way to deal with struggling students because many education experts believed social promotion favored the child's social and psychological well-being. They argued that holding students back to repeat a grade had a negative impact on their educational experience, without providing much benefit.
 
How Social Promotion Can Hurt Students
 
On the other side of the coin, research also suggests that social promotion does little to advance a child's academic career. Opponents of the practice claim that social promotion merely hides the failures of the schools to properly educate students and does nothing to help those children catch up academically to their peers. In fact, without fulfilling the need to repeat a full year of schooling, overwhelmed children may tune out and develop bad attitudes about the educational world at large. These students also face a higher drop-out rate in later years because they are simply unable to handle the increasing load of schoolwork, tests and grades.

  • A report from the Westchester Institute for Human Services Research found additional problems that could arise through the practice of social promotion, including:
  • Children may get the idea that hard work and achievement don't count for much.
  • Parents are led into a false confidence that their children are prepared for the rigors of higher education and the workforce.
  • Colleges must use their budgets for remedial coursework because high school graduates aren't ready to succeed in postsecondary education.
  • Businesses have to invest more money to train new employees that didn't receive the necessary skills in school.
  • Society must deal with a growing number of uneducated citizens that are not properly prepared to become productive members of society.

These same opponents to social promotion state that the stigma attached to having to repeat a grade is a temporary one, while the long term benefits of getting a good education are much more far-reaching.
 
How Prevalent is Social Promotion?
 
It can be challenging to gain precise numbers of the prevalence of social promotion in schools today, in part because schools do not like to admit to the practice. However, the report at Education Week suggests that there is data to support the fact that social promotion occurs much more often than parents and educators would like to admit.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, a majority of teachers said they promoted students up that were not prepared for the next grade level. Many education experts suspect that because retention is generally used as a last resort, social promotion may be much more prevalent than the alternative of holding students back.
 
Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of schools in Washington DC, said that social promotion is a symptom of a culture too worried about self esteem. She was reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, "We have become soft in America." Rhee added, "We are so busy making children feel good about themselves that we are not spending the time teaching them how to do good."
 
In New Mexico, state legislatures are considering putting an end to social promotion practices in their schools, according to a report at NECN. The legislation is particularly concerned with passing children from third to fourth grade if they are not proficient in reading at that time. In addition to getting held back one year, students would be required to participate in special programs designed to improve their performance. While New Mexico officials acknowledge these additional programs will cost money, the state says it is prepared to invest in the proper education of their students.
 
What are the Alternatives?
 
While retention is the clearest alternative to social promotion, this option has not been proven particularly effective either. Some of the alternatives suggested by the Westchester report include:

  • Developing clear standards and grade-by-grade criteria
  • Using multiple assessment measures for decision making
  • Equipping teachers with the necessary skills
  • Redesigning the teaching strategies in schools to accommodate more learning styles
  • Personalizing teaching through smaller class sizes and block scheduling
  • Providing remedial assistance for students who need it

Finally, the research institute suggests that one of the most powerful tools for ensuring academic success is quality early childhood education.
 
While there are no obvious solutions for students who are struggling academically, research seems to point to a whole new approach to keeping these students from falling through the academic cracks in our public education system. It appears clear it is time for innovation and creativity – the question becomes, who will have the courage to stand up and introduce a brand new approach to learning? There do seem to be some murmurs in the crowd already – perhaps change really is in the air.

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