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Teacher in a Strange Land: Holding Kids Back

When Michigan passed a mandated retention law for third graders who were not testing at grade level, back in 2016, I thought it was a terrible idea. I wrote about it, in several venues—the idea that children who wanted to master reading, but had been unable to, for whatever reason, would be socially identified as “behind” by being retained. When they were eight years old.

I still think mandatory retention laws, no matter how they’re structured, are a punitive response to children who don’t deserve to be penalized. What surprised me most in writing those columns, however, was the number of people who shared what they considered positive stories about retention—how it was just the ticket for one of their children, a grandchild, a student with limited English, a student who had transferred from another school and used the shift to repeat a grade, etc.

Nearly all the stories had the same elements: The retention happened very early in the child’s school career. The child in question was either among the youngest children in the class, or simply immature—or had mitigating characteristics (like learning the language, or a physical disability). The parents, teacher and school leaders had all agreed that another year of, say, kindergarten would be beneficial.

Michigan has just excised the mandated third-grade retention policy from the School Code, keeping the language around supporting early literacy in public schools. This is excellent news, given the mainstream media’s obsession with the Faux Science of Reading and how Mississippi raised its fourth grade reading scores by flunking third graders who were struggling the previous year.

From a Chalkbeat article, yesterdayShould struggling students be held back a grade? Why researchers don’t have a clear answer. Despite decades of research, there’s no clear answer on whether grade retention in early grades is a good idea. Existing data is open to competing interpretations, and big questions about the policy remain unanswered.

The long-run effects of early grade retention are not clear. Perhaps the more important question about holding students back is how it affects them in the long run. 

For later grades, the research is fairly clear. Multiple studies have found that holding back middle schoolers increases their odds of dropping out of high school.

As a long-time middle school teacher, I sat numerous times with parents around a table in the office, after it became clear that their seventh grader would be failing three or four classes. Nearly always, the outcome was the same: every possible strategy, from tutoring to summer school to what might politely be called “incentives” (read: bribes), would be employed so that Jason would be entering the eighth grade, come fall.

A couple of times, however, parents dads wanted to retain kids who were passing all their classes with Bs and Cs, in order to give their child another year of physical growth so they could be more competitive in high school sports. Think about that—have there been studies on using retention to ensure that your child was beefier than other physically diverse freshmen?

Or this case: a fifth grade teacher I met in Louisiana, where the district mandated retention, had a fifth grader who turned 14 and was eligible for drivers training. He also had a mustache. The other 5th graders were afraid of him.

I’m with the Chalkbeat article: Existing data is open to competing interpretations.

What I do think: We have pushed all our typical benchmarks and expected yardsticks for intellectual growth and academic capacities down, and have accepted standardized testing data as Truth, when describing students and thinking about the best ways to educate them.

Just because some children can read at age four, or perform abstract algebraic calculations in sixth grade doesn’t mean that we should reorganize the curriculum to encourage more pushing down. Conversely, just because a child isn’t reading at grade level (whatever that is, and however it’s measured) doesn’t mean that repeating a grade will do anything for the child personally, even if failing a cluster of children artificially raises collective test scores.

It’s become a cliché—but note that Finland doesn’t start formal reading instruction until students are seven years of age, a year before we have decided that some of them need to be “held back.”

Even the language matters—isn’t it ironic, as we strive to leave no child behind, that we hold some of them back?

My school, twenty years ago, had a four-option plan for students entering the district as kindergartners:

  • Developmental kindergarten— a half-day “young fives” program for kids who may not be ready for regular kindergarten work, ascertained through Gesell screening for every child
  • Regular kindergarten—2 ½ days per week, in various schedules
  • Jr. First Grade—for students whose kindergarten teachers identified them as not yet ready for first grade work
  • First Grade

The majority of kids went to kindergarten and first grade. But students could utilize any two or three options, depending on their rate of development. It was an exit ramp off the sequential school conveyor belt without anyone being “held back”—an extra year to grow, with other kids who also needed that time. All placement decisions were made cooperatively by parents, teachers and school leaders.

It was an expensive program (as are all mandated retention programs, it should be noted—requiring an extra year of third grade is costly). And because of that, the bottom line, it was eliminated.

If kids can’t read by third grade, we can always retain them then, right?


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...