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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to Social Promotion?


It has been around for over a century and will continue as a crucial part of the system of schooling in America. Educational leaders who take social promotion for granted as a longstanding tradition in American schools have struck a bargain between competing values of excellence and equity that drive the age-graded, nearly two-century old system. Let me explain.

I wonder if any reader can recall President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1999? Then he said:

… My Education Accountability Act will require every school district receiving federal help to take the following five steps. First, all schools must end social promotion (emphasis added). No child should graduate from high school with a diploma he or she can’t read. We do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material. But we can’t just hold students back because the system fails them. So my balanced budget triples the funding for summer school and after-school programs, to keep a million children learning.

Or perhaps, a few readers might remember what New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg said over two decades ago: “No more social promotion in our schools.”

The President and Mayor wanted to end a traditional practice of the age-graded school. Social promotion is (and has been) a fundamental way of operating the age-graded school in America for nearly two centuries. The administrative procedure of socially promoting students (semester and year-end report cards are the mechanism that informs both students and parents) is not only basic to the age-graded school, it is also central to the task of moving children and youth through the school system from ages 5-17 in nearly all states.


This post, then, is neither a criticism nor paean to either report cards or this fundamental practice of schooling. I only want to describe and explain why the practice of social promotion exists and its remarkable longevity.

Moving nearly all students from one grade to another in elementary school (i.e., promoted from 4th grade to 5th grade) and in middle and high schools going from one level of a subject to another (e.g., English 10 to English 11; French 1 to French 2) has existed since the appearance of age-graded schools in the mid-19th century. Groups of students stay together with their age peers even if some of them fail to meet school and teacher requirements for promotion to the next grade or passing an academic subject.

So exactly how many of the nearly 50 million students in U.S. public schools get socially promoted in a given year? The answer is 98 percent. Of the two percent who fail, there were more Black students than white. These numbers suggest that social promotion has been a signal success.

The Covid-19 pandemic underscored the universality of this school practice when it was clear that students in 13,000-plus districts had wide variation in which schools closed for weeks and months which schools stayed open. School boards and superintendents had to decide on promoting students when so many school days were lost. Even amid these extraordinary circumstances, schools promoted nearly all students from one grade to another.

The reasons for social promotion then and now are social and psychological. Educational leaders wanted students of the same age to stay together as they marched from one grade to another so that situations where 14 year-olds repeating a grade would not be sitting next to 10 year olds. Very few students (were) are retained–the fancy word for flunking a grade or subject.

However, critics of social promotion over past decades see the practice as a failure to educate the nation’s young. These critics want students in key grades–say, 3rd, 5th, and 8th to meet academic standards such as passing state tests and meeting teacher requirements for the grade. If students fail to meet these standards, require that they go to summer school, receive tutoring, or repeat the grade. Retention, these critics argue, is essential to maintain academic standards. This persistent struggle over social promotion is a clash of two prized and traditional values in American schooling: excellence and equity.

Social promotion prizes equity–all students move ahead; holding back students who fail to meet academic standards while advancing those who do, favors excellence. Periodic debates over social promotion in past decades–see President Clinton’s and Mayor Bloomberg’s quotes above–are reminders that the debate won’t go away. It will continue as long as there is an age-graded school that chases these competing and cherished values of excellence and equity.

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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-...