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Can Schools Stop Promoting Failure?

The "social promotion" pendulum swings back and forth. Educators in Chicago, DC, and North Carolina are setting new standards for student promotion and retention. And a new report from the American Federation of Teachers -- "Passing on Failure: District Promotion Policies and Practices" -- examines the issue.

Report CoverThis fall, more than 10,000 Chicago public school students faced retention as the school district implemented a program to eliminate social promotion and enforce consistent standards of achievement.

In Washington, D.C., school officials are proposing to retain all second, third, and eighth grade students who are not reading at grade level by the end of the current school year.

In North Carolina, more than 70,000 students could be retained if they fail to meet newly established promotion guidelines.

These students and tens of thousands of others across the country are the victims of social promotion, the practice of promoting students from one grade to the next regardless of academic achievement.


A recent study conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the world's largest teacher unions, found that many U.S. school districts routinely practice social promotion, despite public policies -- and sometimes laws -- meant to prevent it. Social promotion, says the AFT report, is "rampant" in this country. In fact, many beleaguered school systems, overwhelmed by increasing numbers of ill-prepared and unmotivated students, regard social promotion as a necessary -- and unavoidable -- evil.

Often subtly implemented to facilitate classroom management, avoid wholesale retentions, and reduce student dropout rates, social promotion has instead produced countless high school graduates unable to do college level work or even to hold entry-level jobs. "Social promotion," says Chicago school CEO Paul Valla, "is a time bomb that exploded in our face."

According to the AFT report, Passing on Failure: District Promotion Policies and Practices, the practice of social promotion contributes to the very problems that can make it seem necessary. Promotion, in the absence of satisfactory academic performance, perpetuates academic failure by teaching students that effort and achievement are not important and that objective standards can not and will not be enforced. It forces classroom teachers to deal with an impossibly wide range of student knowledge, background, and readiness. And it denies students both the classroom and remedial resources that could help them reverse the pattern of academic failure.


But if social promotion is the problem, is wholesale retention the answer? In fact, the AFT report states that simple retention, requiring students to repeat a grade with no additional supports in place, is as rampant in this country as social promotion -- and meets with as little success. It is estimated that, each year, between 15 and 19 percent of U.S. students are kept back and as many as 50 percent of students in large urban areas are retained at least once before they graduate or drop out of school. And yet few studies have documented any appreciable long-term academic gains associated with retention.

In addition, the AFT report cites "serious problems and significant costs" associated with retention, including student alienation from school, serious classroom discipline problems, and a significantly increased school dropout rate. The National Association of School Psychologists also reports that

  • most students do not catch up when they repeat a grade,
  • those who appear to make progress frequently fall behind again in later grades, and that
  • students who are retained often dislike school, suffer low self-esteem, and frequently become discipline problems.

For those reasons, school systems like Chicago, that have found it necessary to implement wholesale retentions in order to counteract the effects of past social promotions, have also implemented support systems, such as tutoring, summer school, and counseling. But is that enough?


Social promotion ignores and hides student failure. Retention alone offers students only what failed to work the first time. Mass retention, even when accompanied by extensive support systems, is a costly and disruptive procedure. What, then, is the answer?

According to the AFT report, if we are to reverse the trend of student failure in our nation's schools, school districts must first address the question of why children fail and then institute widespread policy changes that will prevent the cycle of failure from ever beginning. Those changes, say AFT leaders, must include reform in the areas of school organization, curriculum, instruction, and educational programs.

The report recommends that all school districts:

  • develop specific, grade-level and subject-oriented curriculum objectives and adopt rigorous academic standards for meeting those objectives. Clear, universal standards will ensure fair and objective methods for determining success, provide teachers with the authority to demand academic excellence, make academic expectations accessible to all students, teachers, and parents, and provide a consistent basis for assessment and for making successful promotion and retention decisions.
  • provide adequate numbers of well-trained staff to all schools. School districts must develop policies to attract and retain the best teachers and provide those teachers with on-going training and support. All elementary school teachers should be trained in teaching reading, and schools with large numbers of at-risk students should be provided with staff specially trained to meet the needs of those students.
  • institute policies to prevent early school failure and intervene immediately and vigorously when students show signs of falling behind. Pre-school and all-day kindergarten programs should be available to all high-risk students. Class size should be reduced in the early grades. School districts should have support available for students in danger of failing, including individual tutoring, extended-day programs, after-school and summer school programs, and parent counseling services.


The AFT report points out that, for much of the 20th century, school districts have alternately embraced and abandoned two responses to student failure -- social promotion and retention. And neither approach has been successful. It is time for a solution instead of a response -- a solution based on a willingness to implement proven models of educational reform, strict adherence to high standards of achievement, and the belief that all students can succeed. The AFT report concludes: Children can achieve when they are taught the basics early; when they are challenged by high standards and a rich curriculum; and when caring, firm adults pay strict attention to the quality of students' work and behavior.

Passing on Failure: District Promotion Policies and Practices is available on the American Federations of Teachers (AFT) Web site. Or a copy of the report might be ordered for $5.00 prepaid from the AFT Order Department, 555 New Jersey Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.

Related Resources

  • "Grade Retention and Social Promotion" by Gary Cooke and John Stammer, Childhood Education, 61(4), 302-308.
  • "Failure in Grade: Do Retained Students Catch Up?" by Samuel J. Meisels and Fong-Ruey Liaw, Journal of Educational Research, 87(2), 69-77.
  • Synthesis of Research on Grade Repetition/Promotion Policies, published by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students, Baltimore, MD.
  • "Repeating a Grade -- Time to Grow or Denial of Opportunity?" by Nancy L. Karweit, CDS Report No. 16 (May 1991).
  • "An Approach to Reducing Risk Through School System Restructuring" by Gary D. Gottfredson and Denise C. Gottfredson, CDS Report No. 10 (August 1990).
  • "Increasing Teacher Expectations for Student Achievement: An Evaluation" by Denise C. Gottfredson, Elizabeth Marciniak, Ann T. Birdseye, and Gary D. Gottfredson, CDS Report No. 25 (November 1991).

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Article by Linda Starr
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