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May 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 8

Letter from Washington / Does Social Promotion Work?

    Letter from Washington / Does Social Promotion Work?- thumbnail
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      New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is finally playing hardball (Winerip, 2004). The issue? Social promotion—specifically, the practice of promoting 3rd graders with low test scores to 4th grade. The mayor opposes social promotion—and he expects his advisors to oppose it, too. In fact, just before the recent St. Patrick's Day vote on social promotion, Bloomberg removed from the city department of education's Panel for Educational Policy the three members who announced that they would vote against him on the issue.
      The mayor reasoned that he had appointed the advisors and he expected them to vote with him. As he put it, “I think what you're seeing is the last gasp of an old system. Either you want reform or you don't.” And he garnered some support from one observer, who spotted Bloomberg marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade and shouted, “If you can't read and write in the 3rd grade, you should not pass. Way to go!”
      Aside from the comic opera quality of it all, however, the debate is serious. Does social promotion work? What happens to kids who are held back, and what happens to those who can't do the work and are promoted anyway?
      There are persuasive arguments on both sides of the issue. Those who advocate eliminating social promotion argue that promoting youngsters who haven't mastered the basics does them a profound disservice. The other side asserts that there is no gain in holding students back: They just repeat a failing experience and are socially diminished. Amid all the controversy, we can be sure of only one thing: No one says that students should not learn. Each side believes its position supports student learning.
      The experience of Chicago Public Schools gives ammunition to both sides. Jay Mathews cites recent research indicating that ending social promotion in the Chicago school system had a positive effect (2004), whereas David M. Herszenhorn reports that Chicago is softening its tough rules against social promotion in response to new research showing that ending social promotion did not raise test scores (2004).
      What this debate really reveals is the archaic nature of contemporary school organization. If we are serious about standards-based education, then we must question the most significant assumption underlying school organization today: that students should be grouped by age rather than accomplishment. Such grouping doesn't occur in the workplace, in professional sports, or in the military. In some cases, age is a convenient proxy for mastery and skill (or lack thereof), but it is only a rough indicator. Age is as likely to mask developmental differences as reveal them.
      Every parent and teacher has observed vast developmental differences among children of the same age. In fact, the idea that students in a given grade are the same age is fiction; any given age spans a full year. The difference between a precocious 5-year-old and a 5-year-old marching to a slower developmental drummer is night and day. But it is also a difference that may evaporate by the teenage years.
      By the time students are ready for departmental instruction in the disciplines, the issue has nearly disappeared. French II follows French I just as Algebra II follows Algebra I. To be sure, a high school student who fails most of his or her freshman classes does not become a sophomore, but there does not appear to be the same stigma. In a departmental setting, the student can always catch up by repeating a single class rather than the entire grade.
      The simple fact is that grouping students by age is a historical artifact—a product of administrative convenience and a reminder of the factory-model school era. One potential benefit of standards-based education would be the end of divisive and sterile debates about social promotion. Students would advance as they mastered standards over time, setting a pace consistent with their individual developmental clocks. Measured and defensible standards “gates” should replace arbitrary age-linked standards. Conceptually, the idea is sound; how to put it into practice is the challenge schools face.

      Herszenhorn, D. M. (2004, Mar. 25). In reversal, Chicago eases promotion. The New York Times.

      Mathews, J. (2004, Mar. 23). A step back can help students move forward. The Washington Post, p. A9.

      Winerip, M. (2004, Mar. 17). On education: Checks, balances and rubber stamps. The New York Times, p. B10.

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