Sixth grade students rated grade retention as the single most stressful life event, higher than both the loss of a parent and going blind (Jimerson & Kaufman, 2003, p. 627)
Teachers often debate whether to retain children who struggle with reading.
Those who support retention argue that struggling readers will benefit from repeating a grade. Retention will give them an opportunity to review the material, or mature socially and emotionally. Fear of additional retentions will motivate them to achieve.
Educators, politicians and parents who support “standards” and attack “social promotion”—the practice of automatically advancing children from grade to grade, despite poor achievement—vigorously support retention. They argue that retention sends children the clear message that they must master what was taught or pay the price. In one sense, retention advocates have been very successful—by 9th grade, schools retain almost 50 percent of children.
In another sense, retention advocates have failed—as a group, retained children do not improve socially, emotionally, or academically.
A large body of research, collected over many decades, has documented the deleterious and counterproductive effects of retention. It negatively effects academic achievement and self-concept. Many retained children view themselves as failures who cannot succeed, no matter their efforts. Often, they suffer from heightened stress. Many are ashamed of their public failure and suffer the ridicule of their peers. Many give up, or react to continued frustration in troublesome ways.
Given these findings, it’s not surprising that retention produces older underachievers, dramatically increasing the probability that they’ll drop out of high school, even if they were retained only once, in elementary school. In summarizing the retention research, Shane Jimerson and Amber Kaufman (2003) concluded that “students retained during elementary school are at an increased risk for dropping out of high school.... Retained students are between 2 and 11 times more likely to drop out during high school than nonretained students.... Early failure (grade retention) is highly associated with the ultimate school failure (dropping out)” (p. 626).
Alternatives to Retention
The productive response to academic distress, such as reading difficulties, is neither retention nor social promotion. It’s promotion with intensive, focused, highly personalized, carefully monitored academic instruction that improves critical academic abilities while directly supporting the instruction these academically distressed children receive in their regular classes. This requires extra, ongoing help from highly skilled specialists, such as certified reading specialists, who also know how to get children to believe in themselves.
For these specialists to profoundly affect the achievement of academically distressed children, they need adequate time to work with classroom teachers and to teach these children in small tutorials of one to three children. Without ample opportunity to coordinate with classroom teachers and to teach distressed learners in very small groups, groups small enough to personalize instruction and get to know the children as individuals, success is unlikely.
Remedial intervention may require after school tutorials or small group instruction over the summer months. It absolutely requires extra, precisely focused instruction as soon as problems are identified. If in November a kindergarten teacher observes that a child has letter-recognition and phonemic awareness problems, the school should provide him with skilled, extra help by December. If in January a first grade teacher notes that a child has word identification problems, the school should provide extra help by February. The earlier the intervention, the greater the likelihood of success. Kindergarten is not too early.
Special Education and Reading
Unfortunately, some schools deny extra help to distressed learners, such as struggling readers, because they’re not special education students. This makes no sense. Ignoring reading problems will not improve them, whether or not struggling readers are eligible for special education. If their problems are severe enough to consider retention, they’re severe enough to warrant extra instruction from reading specialists with the knowledge, skill, and resources to help these children.
In contrast, some schools want to place children in special education as soon as reading problems emerge. In many cases, this too makes little sense. Many special education teachers lack extensive coursework and practicum experiences in remediating reading disabilities. Because of this, many lack the knowledge and instructional strategies needed to address the intricacies of reading disabilities. This is not a professional or personal fault—they majored in special education, not reading disabilities. Usually, their coursework emphasized IEPs, transition, child development, social skills, applied behavior analysis, and skills of daily living, not diagnostic reading instruction. Moreover, the demands of their classes are often so great that they lack the time and mindset to coordinate reading instruction with the child’s regular class teachers. Similar arguments can be made about basic skills instruction; it often fails struggling readers.
Cost is the main argument against providing intensive, focused, thoroughly personalized academic instruction in tutorial or small group situations. But look closely at the argument: It advocates spending billions of dollars for what’s ineffective, little for what’s effective.
Conservatively, it costs about $8,000 a year to retain a child. This is $8,000 if a child is retained one year, $16,000 if retained two years, and $24,000 if retained three years. Multiple retentions are not uncommon. Moreover, $8,000 does not consider the costs of testing, counseling, truancy, crime, and special education. Thus, America wastes more than $18,000,000,000 annually retaining some 2.3 million children. Over a decade, retention costs more than $180, 000, 000, 000. Think of the good this money could do if it were spent on effective interventions, such as tutoring and small group instruction by reading specialists. Think of how much in-school tutoring it could buy. Think of how much support $180,000,000,000 could provide to teachers and parents of distressed learners. It makes no sense to spend $180, 000,000,000 on retention—something that rarely helps, but often harms.
If you’re asked to consider retention, because a child is struggling with reading or related academics, recommend promotion. But be sure to also recommend all the services he needs to overcome his problems. Don’t be afraid to recommend the ongoing services of a specialist—sometimes only a specialist has the knowledge and skill to help distressed learners overcome their difficulties.
If you feel that retention is best for this child, because you heard it helped other children, look at their progress five years after retention. Also, look at the research on retention. Although research is not gospel, it’s the best information available. It will give you a clear picture of what’s likely to happen. Start with Jimerson and Kaufman’s article.
Finally, in your school, in your profession, and in your role as a citizen, lobby for policies based on the best research available. By doing this, you’re helping children, which is what we, as teachers, are all about.
Jimerson, S. R., & Kaufman, A. K. (2003). Reading, writing, and retention: A primer on grade retention research. The Reading Teacher, 56(8), 622-635.
Howard Margolis, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 17 years has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. He and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, a Chancellor's Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, discuss this and related topics in their forthcoming book, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.