A LYS Superintendent reflects on the following:

LYS Nation,

My first year as an assistant principal was a whirlwind.  I wanted to do a great job, so I was tough, on everything.  I worked discipline and truancy with a vengeance.  Too many missed days, and I would put you in Saturday school to make up the days.  Don’t accept my Saturday school offer?  I denied course credit at the snap of my fingers.  Teachers cheered me on; finally someone holding kids accountable!  Then the next year rolled around.  I had Algebra I classes with over 35 kids in them.  You see, every freshman was taking Algebra I, and about 1/3 of the sophomore class was re-taking Algebra I.  I knew then I had to rethink my approach.  

Now I am a superintendent; all of my previous administrative experience has been in high schools.  So this elementary and middle school business is a little new to me and a some of it is quite different.  Of course there is no retention, per se, in high schools, but there is in K-8.  So, this is the crazy time of year and teachers are all discussing retention.  I thought I would comment.

First, the research is clear that kids retained in grades K-8 are significantly more at risk to drop-out of high school.  The exact odds of the drop-out effect vary, but the research is consistent. Retention in grade schools creates drop-outs in high schools.  I spent a decade as a high school administrator fixing the problems passed up through grades K-8, so I saw the effects many, many times.  Disagree if you want, but I can assure you that very few 20 year olds walk across the stage to receive their diploma.  If the district can’t find an accelerated program for the retained child, a drop-out is almost certain.  

Think about that. We retain students in grades K-8, knowing full well the drop-out risk is astronomical. Then we design programs, hire faculty, and build buildings to address the needs of 18-21 year olds so they won’t drop out.  A different approach is in order.  

Let’s think about student achievement in grades K-8, or more appropriately for this discussion, the LACK of achievement for specific children.  What factors go into this achievement problem?  Well, of course there are many, but I think we can categorize them into three broad categories: school related problems; home/environment related problem; and developmental/learning disability problems.  Let’s discuss them one by one, because if you are retaining a child, you are doing so only to buy time to solve one or more of those problems.  At least I hope that is what you are doing.

School related problems include poor or no curriculum, poor instruction, poor tracking of student progress, poor systematic method of intervention and support, and other such problems.  I can’t see how retention will solve any of these problems.  These are structural and adult problems; the adults must either change structure and/or practice or risk being removed. 

Let’s move on to home/environmental problems.  The effects of abuse, neglect, poor home support systems, parents not at home, and other such problems will certainly have an impact on children.  And again, which one of these problems do you think retention will solve?  Honestly, I can’t think of any. I am not saying there is not one, but I can’t think of one.  In fact, I now believe that retention may indeed make home/environmental problems even worse, but that’s another discussion.

Last, we have the issue of developmental disorders/learning disabilities and other issues like these.  First, the front line educator (teacher, principal, counselor) is likely unqualified to make these determinations.  Second, let’s say a child does have a psychological issue.  Will retention cure the issue?  Let’s say the child is learning disabled.  Will retention cure the disability? Indeed this is likely the barrier to learning that impacts the smallest group of learners, maybe 3% or so, yet it is the one we run to most frequently.  There MAY be some children in this group that retention would help, but of the 3% that fall into this group, I suspect it would be a tiny fraction of the 3%.

Yes, I know in Texas we have SSI.  That’s a misguided law dictated by politics, not anything grounded in educational practices.   I will also caution you not to use anecdotal scenarios in a generalized way.  For example, I had a teacher tell me he retained his own child in 3rd grade and it was the best decision he ever made.  OK, but the support system in his home (a middle-class, professional educator) is likely unique, especially in areas with a lots of low SES children.  The likelihood that this teacher’s anecdotal experience could be transferred in general to children in highly at-risk situations is hopelessly misguided and will likely result in great harm to children.  

It seems to me that retention is a simple solution that fails to solve virtually all possible barriers to learning in the real world, especially with at-risk students.  I wish we truly could solve the problems of at-risk students by merely retaining them.  If it were only that easy.  The truth is when we talk about retaining a child we are most likely indicting ourselves.  Because the most likely scenario leading to child achievement failure (that we can control) is that the school did not do everything it could to support the child.  


But if we are to deal with this in any meaningful manner… Own it.

Think. Work. Achieve. Your turn…

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