My hand darted uncharacteristically back and forth among the small dishes at the center of the table: first cookies, then pistachios, next almonds, followed by another cookie… No, I wasn’t famished. I was frustrated, facing an apparently futile dilemma. And so I ate.
Around the table sat the principal, assistant principal, counselor, school psychologist, Healthy Start Coordinator, and another teacher. Together we had to decide the fate of six (ten percent!) of my students: To retain or not to retain?. That was the question. Should these kids repeat the 7th Grade?
All the children had—according to “multiple measures” (a current educational buzzword) of failed grades, low standardized test scores and deficient writing samples—learned very little during the past year, and were performing far below standards. And all had their own stories.
We passed two of the kids on because they had learning disabilities but still seemed recently to be showing promise. Another we dismissed because he’d already been retained once. Clearly that strategy hadn’t worked. Besides, if we held him back again he’d be able to drive himself to 8th grade.
The other three were more problematic. Two were “flat-liners,” failing nearly every class despite their evident ability. They’d just refused to work, spurning all offers of extra help. The third was truant. He’s missed half the year because his mom kept him home to baby-sit, or because he’d simply “overslept.”
Were these kids just lazy? Perhaps, in part. However, they also evinced symptoms of clinical depression. Worse, they suffered from parental neglect, as well. (Had the latter caused the former?) My repeated phone calls/progress reports home had been greeted first with excuses, then hostility, and finally resignation. It was so much easier for parents just to give up than to follow through on a daily basis.
We educators around the table, though, didn’t have that luxury or inclination. And so we debated.
Some pointed to the research indicating that retention was almost never an effective intervention. In fact, 90% of those students repeating one grade, and 98% or those repeating two eventually drop out of high school. So, although we wanted to believe holding my students back would make them and their parents finally care, such an argument seemed spurious, illusory.
Others in the room countered that, although we educators were in the success business, we were in the standards business as well. These kids had not met any standards. And what message did it send them and their peers to continue passing them on year after year?
The debate raged. Damned if we did. Damned if we didn’t. I wasn’t the only one grabbing for a tasteless cookie.
Unspoken during our deliberations was the “elephant” on the table: these kids’ parents and their negligence. If they were held accountable for their children’s academic success or failure as we were--if, for example, they were fined for each day of their children’s truancy, or compelled to explain to a judge why their children never completed homework--then we’d never have found ourselves facing such a terrible dilemma. However, in America we ridicule schools, blame teachers, fail students—but never even mention parents or their responsibility, culpability.
The Retention Committee and I decided to retain the two flatliners. The truant kid, since he had managed to earn at least a few D’s, we promoted to 8th grade on the condition he faithfully attend summer school.
Did we make the right decision? Did one even exist for us? Have a cookie.