Is Retention a Good Idea?

In an attempt to address the proliferation of struggling students in our test driven school culture, many school districts have been re-looking at their retention policies. Some argue that retaining kids and having them repeat a grade gives students more time to learn the basics while others argue that retention does more harm than good. Studies show that if a student has not learned to read by the end of 3rd grade they will most likely be a struggling reader for years to come. As the curriculum shifts from early literacy – learning to read, to using reading to learn, many students fall behind. This is often referred to as the “Mathew Effect” or the “4th grade slump.” This phenomenon is even more prevalent for our English Learners who get stuck at the “intermediate plateau,” that is they stay at the Intermediate level of English proficiency for their entire academic career and are sometimes referred to as “lifers.” So is retaining students until they learn to read a good strategy? What about early math proficiency?

The jury is still out but there is compelling information to guide our thinking. Most agree that if you are going to retain a student, do it early. First graders are more flexible and kind to their peers than say fourth graders. The idea is that younger students will experience fewer stigmas than older ones. Students who repeat first grade do seem to become more fluent when given the extra year to catch up. But as students progress through the grades, these same students seem to lose ground. The stigma kids face when “left behind” or “repeating” is very real and can have lasting consequences like low self-esteem and dis-engagement from school. Teacher’s attitudes towards children who are retained, while well intentioned, are often skewed. Teachers often lower expectations for retained students, which contributes to further declines in achievement.

So if we don’t retain children who are behind what can we do? We can differentiate our instruction and target skill development for students who need an extra boost. We can create an apprenticeship classroom where students who are proficient can mentor and model for those who are not quite there. We can use Response to Intervention (RTI) inquiry teams to figure out why some students are successful and develop systems of support so students don’t fall through the cracks.

We need to find better ways to meet the needs of all the kids in the room. Retention may temporarily solve a problem and be convenient for grown ups but we need to make substantive changes to curriculum and instruction based on what works for all kids before they get too far behind. To use a metaphor from medicine, we need to stop performing autopsies and focus on preventative care. Big time!

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