Skip to main content

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Pass or Fail Jorge? A Teacher’s Dilemma

Today, she must tell the principal who has to be held back. What should she do with Jorge?

Jorge is a year older than everyone else in her fourth grade class; he had been held back once. In reading and math he is still at least a year below grade level but he has improved a lot in each subject. He does his homework turning in papers often filled with smudges and wrong answers. In class, he raises his hand to answer questions, occasionally getting the right answer. He never stops trying. He is the most anxious-to-please eleven year-old the teacher has ever had. But he is at the bottom of the class academically.

Sometimes Jorge would get so frustrated with a lesson that he would get into fights. Once, he was suspended for talking back to the teacher. Yet she remembers how Jorge, speaking Spanish to a newly arrived Mexican boy, taught him to play kickball. No one else had done that. She recalls how he would gracefully settle arguments between classmates and figure out elegant solutions to problems the class was having with other fourth graders during recess. But none of these talents had raised his low test scores.

What should she do with Jorge?

Failing him simply on the basis of below-grade level work in reading and math might satisfy the principal and superintendent in the small district that she holds her students to academic standards. Both administrators constantly tout high academic standards to repair our country’s economic health. Yet it is easy to talk about rigorous standards in the abstract but hard when Jorge is sitting ten feet away from you and obviously intent upon finishing long division problems you assigned.

Does flunking Jorge help maintain academic standards? Will he become an example to other students to work harder out of fear of repeating a grade?

The teacher then asked herself what would it mean to Jorge to repeat the fourth grade. Would this help Jorge learn to read better? All of his friends would be in fifth grade and he would be with classmates two or more years younger than him. Would he feel even dumber than he says he feels now when he fails a test? The teacher knows that those who yell loudest about the importance of academic standards seldom worry about how repeated failures corrodes the spirit of a child.

Would promoting him be any better? Fifth grade reading and math are even more demanding than fourth grade work. Jorge would simply fall further behind. Yes, he would be with his friends and he won’t be the tallest in the class anymore but he would need so much help just to stay even with his classmates. But the district has cut back on reading and math specialists services so there is no additional help for Jorge.

Jorge’s teacher is faced with the persisting dilemma built into the DNA of today’s schools: annual promotion or retention. Sure, teachers want students to reach district standards. Yet these same teachers know from experience that flunking a student seldom helps him (more boys than girls get retained in grade) do well in school in subsequent years. Research supports practitioner wisdom.

Holding back children in the early grades often leads to increased absenteeism, troublesome behavior in later grades, and eventually dropping out. If the purpose of retention-in-grade is to help students improve academically, researchers have found few such benefits.

But such research findings mean little to many superintendents and principals: social promotion, they say, will produce unskilled graduates unable to get into college or get jobs. Schools must separate achievers from non-achievers. If students do not perform academically, fail them.

Is there no other way out of this dilemma?

Some schools have gotten around this bind facing Jorge’s teacher by grouping children by age rather than grade. Instead of kindergarten, first and second grades, a primary unit of five-to-eight year olds gives students time to catch up on their academic and social skills over a three-year period rather than forcing a yearly promotion decision. Such faculties know what every decent gardener knows: all begonias don’t grow at the same rate. Some need more time and care to flourish.

Still students move from elementary to middle school and then on to high school. What to do with students still below district academic standards? Some school districts provide direct help students not yet ready for the next level of schooling. Other districts ungrade upper-level units. They believe that it is not only intelligence but also maturation and student effort that count in getting students to catch up with peers..

But Jorge is in a district that doesn’t have such ungraded units and continues to cut back on services. His teacher still faces the dilemma. She knows in her heart that Jorge has fine personal qualities that might shrivel were he to repeat the grade. Yet the boy is far behind academically. With a shrug of helplessness, the teacher puts a check in the column marked “retain” next to Jorge’s name.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...