The Perils of Social Promotion: When Should Kids Fail?

It’s the beginning of a new school year. Teachers are returning to classrooms, kids are getting backpacks ready, and class rolls are being generated. It’s a scene that is repeated all around the globe every school year.

Another thing that happens around the globe every school year is the injustice done to children who are allowed to progress to the next grade when they are no where near grade level. Of course, there can also be injustice done when a child is retained in a grade level. So what do we do? That, my friends, is the conundrum we find ourselves in repeatedly.

Let’s start out with a definition of “Social Promotion”. Throw that into Google and this is what you get. Thanks for helping us out here Google.

so·cial pro·mot·ion
noun: social promotion; plural noun: social promotions
  1. the practice promoting a child to the next grade level regardless of skill mastery in the belief that it will promote self-esteem.

That pretty well sums it up. So, is social promotion fair? Part of that answer depends on to whom you are referring.

Is it fair to the student? This is a hot potato topic. Many are adamant, kids should not be promoted if they do not have mastery of the content. Period. End of discussion. They are not open to discussing anything other than their viewpoint on that. They are either at grade level, or they stay behind. I used to sit firmly in this camp, long ago as a as a new teacher. I have since migrated from this firm stance a bit.

Then there is the camp that says to keep a student back is not fair, no matter their level. Kids will blossom, grow, etc. etc. etc. Yeah, we get that, but kids still need to make growth in a school year. Not growing is bad. I don’t think anyone would argue that one. If a kid doesn’t grow, should they automatically go on to the next level?  We know this happens all the time, especially when that would move the child out of one building and into another. How’s that sound for fair? Hmm… didn’t think so.

Is it fair to the teachers? Let’s be honest here, some kids are much more of a challenge to work with than others. a 16 year old 6th grader is going to be a challenge pretty much no matter how you do it. Should a teacher have to try to teach that 16 year old in the same room with those 11 year olds? In case some of you haven’t noticed, 16 year olds and 11 year olds have a somewhat different outlook on life, fun, and much more. This one is a problem waiting to happen.

Teachers regularly moan that kids won’t follow directions, won’t do their work, etc. I hate to break it to you, but if you decided to teach thinking that every kid was going to love every moment of every class, you were a bit delusional. Part of the job is to make the kids want to learn what you give them. Make them want to run to your class so they don’t miss anything. #tlap anyone? If you’re not familiar with that hashtag, Google it. I will give you a hint… Dave Burgess.

Is it fair to the other students? Yeah, we get it. Each kid is their own being, and each gets treated individually. See that little point above about that 16 year old in a 6th grade room. How fair is it to those little 11 year olds to be in there with that 16 year old? There are a world of problems that can present themselves in a situation like this. If your teachers and administrators don’t keep a close watch on this, trouble’s coming. Teenage motivations are a bit different.

Is it fair to the student being retained? This ladies and gentlemen is where the rubber hits the road.When all is said and done, can you go home and say you did the right thing for each and every kid you teach? Can you honestly feel comfortable with the idea of holding a kid back or putting him on to the next grade? This is where each student being an individual comes into play. Students are measured against standards. Your school/state/district/country/etc. may have a different name for those standards, but they are standards. Did the student reach a predetermined level of proficiency on each of those standards? Should a student master ALL of the standards, or just some?

Will retaining the student ACTUALLY help the student, or HARM him/her? I have had the opportunity to teach students from 3rd grade through 8th grade. I can tell you, if we socially promote kids in lower grades and put them into the upper grades (junior high, etc) we are failing them. Yes, I know it can be hard to retain a student. Yes, I know it can hurt self esteem. I know all the arguments for passing a student who is not ready. But I also know what happens to that student when they land in a junior high classroom reading on a 2nd grade level. If you think holding them back in first grade to help get them up to speed does harm, what do you think letting that same kid land in 8th grade still unable to read does?

In the end, we tell kids things like, “The teacher didn’t fail you, you failed yourself.” I know, this is true often. The student didn’t do their work, refused to come to school whatever. Yes, that happens. But… there are times that teachers fail students. And by failing them, I don’t mean holding them back. We actually often fail students by moving them on. That seems backwards to some… but it is true. You have failed a student when you move that child out of your grade unable to perform when there is a possibility of that student getting on level if he/she had another year.

The answer to the conundrum is complicated. But remember, we signed up for this. We signed up knowing there would be kids who are difficult, kids who need extra help to get there, kids who get nothing at home. We knew it going in. Now, we need to act on that. Do what is right for each kid. Not what makes the numbers look good. Not what makes you feel better because no one failed your class… but what is RIGHT FOR EACH AND EVERY KID.

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