Retention: The obvious answer or more harm than good?

The topic of retention or “failing” in the early grades is much debated. It is easy to say that one should be held back a grade if they do not acquire the necessary skills to move to the next.  However, on further analysis this may not be the best decision for the student.
In Alfie Kohn’s book, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards,” Kohn notes, Students who have to repeat a grade are much more likely to drop out of school years later than if they hadn’t been held back.”
Moreover, Kohn states that the most comprehensive review of the available evidence shows that, “At risk students who are promoted achieve at the same or higher levels than comparable at-risk students who have been retained and…effects measured long term [are] more strongly negative than those measured short term.”
Further, Kohn points out that advocates of retention may “acknowledge some potential harm to a child’s self-esteem but hold that achievement gains are more important than this potential risk.” But, “the data suggest that retention is even more harmful to achievement than it is to a student’s self-concept or attitude towards school.”
Kohn says this does not mean you promote and forget about the problems of the student. If a student needs help then they should get it: “Special arrangements for tutoring make sense and may turn out to be less expensive than having a child repeat a grade. Better yet, teachers ought to work together, and with parents, to consider how they’ve been teaching.” Moreover, Kohn states that the opposite of retention is not social promotion, “but the willingness to look at deficiencies in the instruction instead of just the learner.”
Alfie Kohn’s findings seem to dispel the advantages of the practice of retention. In fact, his findings state that it does more harm than good. I would love to hear what you have to say.
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Posted on December 31, 2010, in Change. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Brian, another BOOM topic! Last year, at my school, I made the decision (that was not well liked initially and had much resistance) to NOT retain students. When I looked at the students who were recommended for retention, they were mostly boys and mostly Aboriginal students. It was not THEIR fault they were “not ready” for the next grade – we obviously needed to do something more for these kids.

    The debate is often retention vs promotion. As Kohn has mentioned, it goes much deeper than this. Through my reading, it has been well documented that social promotion (keeping with their peers) can be harmful as well. The ONLY way to benefit students that are struggling is through promotion WITH intervention. We cannot expect a student to “catch up” on his/her own – the school and teachers must do more for this student. Differentiation is important but it is not enough as this often maintains the gap. At our school we have added extra literacy time for students who are below grade level. The US does a lot of Response to Intervention (RTI) that on the philosophical level, makes sense. We have seen great things and some students that were recommended for retention, have already caught up to their peers and it is only Christmas.

    It is my hope the retention is something that we look back one day and say, man, I cannot believe we used to do that to kids.

    It is also my hope that with the emphasis on learning, rather than grades, we will see that each student has their own learning plan and not one dictated by age-appropriate standards. Kids develop at all different rates (physically, emotionally, mentally) and we need to respect this and not punish this.

    Love this topic and great post!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Chris. I really like the example you have given. It shows that intervention is the key when a students goes forward. We cannot depend on the student (or learner)to “catch up” by themselves. Also, some people that believe in retention want to punish a kid by holding them back a year. It is a punitive measure because they think the student did not earn it. They do not realize that, as you say, “Kids develop at all different rates (physically, emotionally, mentally) and we need to respect this and not punish this.”

  3. Exactly… and how many times do we offer the same program to a child the second time with the hopes that they will do better. I see this at high school often. I remember being part of a conversation where we were not allowed to fail a student in a course for the 3rd time… for the 3rd time???? Are you kidding me? Why fail the first time? If the student is not engaged and is not meeting the outcomes, we need to find a way to make that happen… we cannot think that by failing a student, they will go, “Oh, ok, I will work harder now”. It just doesn't happen.

    Failure of a grade is final and that is wrong. We can do harm that will last a life time and for me, I do not want to do that to a child.

    We need to change to help the student achieve success. Butting heads and threatening retention does not work – we see this over and over again in schools.

  4. Great conversation Brian and Chris.

    This seems like a pretty obvious thing, but for schools that hold students back it is just a vicious cycle. Not enough support has been provided in the first go-round. If a student is socially promoted, most often there won't be that support the following year that you've both written about. It is an avoidance of the problem, a hope that a kid will suddenly get it, but that hope isn't based on anything of substance. At the high school level a student repeating the grade “gets it” because he's heard the conversation the year before. But we've failed to provide support for that student to be successful.

  5. I agree with all of the above comments, Brian. It highlights the bigger issue, that putting students in 'grades' according to when they were born is convenient but not necessarily right. Certainly, we have all dealt with a 13 year old that is much more competent in English (for example) than a 16 year old, however, because they are 13, they are in a Grade 8 class rather than with the 16 year old in Grade 11. This was well described by Ken Robinson in his RSA animated dialogue on creativity being stifled by the factory model of education.

    At some point, I hope that we can have students learning in terms of essential competencies that will allow them to move along a continuum of learning rather than talking about retaining them from moving forward to the next grade.

    Great conversation.

  6. I'm sympathetic with everything said above but would like to play devil's advocate for a moment:
    The assumption that troubles me is that nothing a kid does matters when it comes to promotion out of middle school. Somewhere there is a kid who has the best teachers and the best administrators and the best facilities but still fails every subject because….well, because he doesn't want to do anything the school asks of him. But the school still promotes him because everyone is so fearful of damaging his self-esteem, and so full of self-loathing (we didn't do everything we could for this child!) that we removed the idea that what the kid does matters too; that every individual, even someone 13 years old, has free will and can elect to give us all the middle finger if he wants to.
    And if the school turns the other cheek isn't it reasonable for parents and community members to feel that the school has no self-respect? If no child can ever choose to fail, does that mean that the school does not care enough to send a message to the child: our diploma does mean something. We care enough about you to let you know, you made a choice to fail.

  7. Wow, great conversation! Thanks for bringing up these important points Jerry. I love what Dr. Ross Greene has to say about kids when he states, “its not that kids do well when they WANT to do well… it's that kids do well when they CAN do well. All kids want to do well in something.”

    I think the most important thing here is that if the child is “choosing to fail”, we need to do something different and keep trying. Failure is NOT the solution and will only (almost) ensure that this student drops out in the coming years.

    Failure is NEVER a solution to a disengaged student.

  8. I have a story that may fit. A bright grade 5 student came to my class in September and announced that his previous year was “horrible” – too directive, no choices, boring, mean teacher, etc. For the first couple of months he did minimal work. I continued to provide descriptive feedback in his literature journal, telling him what he did well and giving him suggestions for writing more powerful entries, but he resisted. In fact, he told me he wasn't interested in getting better – his choice. I accepted his decision, and at report card time I wrote just that (with his pre-approval). Within days, he started showing genuine interest in learning and created a wonderful literature project. I wonder what changed for him? Was it because I acknowledged his feelings and allowed him to “fail” but continued to believe in him? I'm not sure.
    @vicdale

  9. @Chris

    Regarding your statement about failure not being a solution to a disengaged student…

    Are saying that a disengaged student will not learn through failure? I completely disagree.

    He/she may learn that the school system is not for me, even if it is the best constructivist school in the world, and go on a pursue art, music, or underwater basket weaving.

    Maybe the answer is for the student to be “unschooled”.

    Remember all those stories about Edison and the makers or 409 failing…or even the drummer for Rush, Neil Peart….

    Failure is not inherently negative and does not, I repeat, does not necessitate permanence.

  10. We have to also remember that we have to provide intense support otherwise dropout is still inevitable. The problems lay in how we assess and what we grade. My cousin was retained for not doing his homeork, and they correlated this to his inability to read. There are a few things we have to look at. Are we engaging our students or keeping them occupied? Are we providing them with necessary and accurate interventions? What determines the intervention and why it is being applied?

    RTI is great in theory, but as what happens to many thins in education is that it become bastardized. In some districts it has become a way to track students. Is it possible that we need to look at how we educate children?

    You are correct in pointing out the gross inequity we place on children when we assign them to grades. Eric Jensen's brain research shows how our brains are ready for different things at different times. Just because it may be developmentally typical does not make a child atypical for not being there yet.

  11. @Stephen
    By failiing… I meant failing a grade, being retained. THAT is never a solution. I completely agree with you that school as we know it might not be what is best… then we need to change the system so we can offer more arts, trades, etc. Failure at tasks and ideas (ie. making mistakes) can be great for learning and encouraging students to take risks. That is not what we are talking about here… we are talking about telling a student to repeat an entire year. THAT is what is never a solution. We can encourage students to find their passion in SO many other ways without retention.

  12. @Chris

    Ok…I think we are in agreement…

    What you are saying then is that “retention is never an option.”?

    I would agree with that.

    I taught retention students for four years. It worked for some: few short term, fewer long term…nothing out of a statistical standard deviation though…

  13. I agree with Cale, when mentioning the factory model of schools. Who are we to say that by categorizing kids in classrooms based on age it has anything do with their ability.

    If we weren't busy putting kids into categories, and were focused on their learning regardless of age, then each child could learn and grow and move forward as appropriate. If we were thinking a little more outside the box in our approach in general, instead of categorizing into grades as we currently do, then maybe we wouldn't need a conversation on retention and could go back to talking about how we can help students learn.

  14. Wow, what an interesting discussion. Thanks for the initial post and all the comments that have followed. I have a feeling my comment is not going to go down too well!
    In general I agree with most of what has been said however I don't think it can be quite as black and white as retention vs. no retention. I have two examples of kids who, many of you would classify as FAILED! However I don't believe this is the case. One example was a girl who was retained a year and as a result ended up in my class. The retention was not delivered to her in the terms of you have failed therefore you must stay back a year, the idea was discussed with her and her parents. It should also be noted that the reason for retaining her was not purely academic, it was social as well. (I might also add that a lot of other interventions happened for her that year in order to readdress the approach to her learning and how we could best suit her needs and I do realise that had we kept her in the same year and incldued these other interventions, the result might have been just as positive). Anyway, the outcome of the year was that she was a much more sociable individual and began to make meaningful friendships, both with her new class and the previous class she had been in; her behavior improved dramatically and so did her learning. At the end of the year, she then moved on to secondary school which put her back in the correct year group. She's now doing very well.
    The second example is a child who had not been in a classroom for 2 years and was known as a 'school refuser'. He was assigned to my class and we managed to get him back into education, into the classroom and actually enjoying learning. The following year (I had left the school) I found out that he had been permanently expelled (so many of you would say he had been FAILED!!!). I was devastated by this as it seemed like all the hard work I had put in the year before had not paid off and I was worried that this decision would then put him off education for good. I happened to be speaking to him one day and did not mention the fact that I knew he had been expelled but he volunteered the information. I asked him how he felt about it and he explained that it was his attitude that had let him down and when he went to secondary school (where he had been offered a place for the following year) he would definitely be approaching the whole thing differently. He too, is now doing very well in secondary school. So, for him, he had had a taste of what being part of a school and learning community could be like but then decided (for whatever reasons) to fall back into his old ways but I think it was then this withdrawal of what he had come to enjoy that made him realise that it wasn't necessarily something he could take for granted and treat any way he pleased.
    Anyway, I guess my point is that it's not just about whether you retain/fail a student or not, it's about how you approach this retention, how you do it in collaboration with the child/parents etc. For many, and the research is obviously clear about this, it will result in negative outcomes long term however I don't think this is necessarily the case in every situation and each individual situation needs to be reviewed for its own merits and drawbacks.
    I'd be interested to hear what people think about this. (Sorry for the long comment!)

  15. I'm enjoying the conversation but I wonder if all of the talk is about making adjustments to the current system we have, which we all realize isn't working all that well for many kids. I think we need to look deeper at Ken Robinson's questions about grouping kids by age as the major flaw.
    What is standing in the way of a school reinventing it's class composition to include multi-age classrooms, with multiple teachers supporting the kids getting through a curriculum based on mastery of critical learnings across the curriculum?
    I would love to remove “grade levels” and “classes” from my elementary school. My wife asked me today “what would you do if you knew you would not fail” – That's it!

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