Promoting every student to the next grade during COVID is a disaster waiting to happen. Here’s what schools should consider instead.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz has an interesting new article out that discusses “Why Schools Are Not Holding Students Back to Address COVID-19 Learning Loss.”In it she notes that at least 84% of school districts plan to promote all students to the next grade despite the pandemic interrupting their education to a degree that is unprecedented in modern times. 

Evidence is all around that huge numbers of kids stopped learning in March. Many have already forgotten much of what learned before school came to a screeching halt. And here comes “summer slide.” The Washington Post recently cited a “worst-case scenario” that projected “sixth- and seventh-graders would retain an average of only 1 to 10 percent of their normal learning gains in math for the year, and just 15 to 29 percent in reading.” Clearly this is a type of crisis we have never faced before. 

In her article, Sarah tells us about the research relating to holding kids back from being promoted to the next grade. It isn’t pretty. Evidence strongly suggests that when schools pick and choose individual kids to hold back from promotion, many of those kids feel singled out, embarrassed, expect less of themselves going forward, and are more likely to drop out. 

It is with those harms in mind that many schools seem to be proudly declaring that they will not even consider having kids repeat grades. Doing so, many leaders say, would be traumatic, counterproductive, and unfair. Brenda Cassellius, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, for example, is quoted as saying, “There’s just so much you can put on kids and teachers who are dealing with a lot of trauma right now.” 

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises expresses similar concerns about “how retention might play out in practice,” and notes that “the role that parent advocacy might play in deciding who is advanced” could lead to unfair results that cause long-lasting harms.

To these leaders the choice seems to binary: hold back some kids and harm them irreparably, or promote all kids to the next grade despite many not being ready. 

I do not see the choice as binary. Were it so, I would agree that it is better to promote all students rather than to pick and choose who to hold back, which would be impossible to do fairly and would result in large numbers of low-income students being held back due to no fault of their own.  

But the choice we face is not binary, and I see at least three other choices we should consider. Because while I agree that selectively holding some children back is a poor choice, I believe that promoting every child without regard to competency and support is a disaster waiting to happen. Especially in subjects where concepts are sequential. 

As a former math teacher, I can tell you that sending large numbers of kids into Algebra I unprepared risks crippling their confidence and stunting their academic careers. Learning algebra is hard enough even when kids are properly prepared and supported. Students who missed the entire fourth quarter of pre-algebra will not have learned concepts that are essential to learning algebra. Many will have also forgotten much of what they learned earlier in the school year before the pandemic began.  I believe it would be cruel and counterproductive to set these kids up to fail by sending them to algebra when they are not ready.

 So, what other options could we consider?

 #1 We could require all students to repeat their interrupted grade. Having everyone repeat would carry tremendous costs, both financially and politically. But we have never before faced a situation in which tens of millions of students stopped learning in early March and will have gone six months without proper lessons. My kids’ school district, for example, did not even attempt to teach anything new once it closed the buildings. It cancelled all instruction for the fourth quarter. Repeating the entire grade would allow teachers time and space to ensure that every student fully masters the material. This option becomes more palatable if you think that the 2020-2021 school year will be a mess.  

#2 We could declare the 2019-2020 school year incomplete and start the 2020-2021 year with students spending the first quarter finishing their previous years’ work. Ideally, this would mean kids return to their previous classrooms to finish the courses they started but never finished properly. Getting through all of that material in one quarter’s worth of time might be difficult given how much students will have forgotten. But it may also be a small enough amount of time that students whose parents were able to keep teaching them during the closures might not be outraged enough to object.

#3 We could embark now on a massive effort to catch kids up over the summer and to provide them with massive support this fall so they can be promoted and properly learn this fall. Unfortunately, this is a tall order given that (1) the virus is still circulating and most or all such learning would need to be remote; (2) most schools have struggled to teach students remotely due to being unprepared for online instruction; (3) many students lack the devices, connectivity, and support necessary to learn remotely; and (4) most districts are not staffed (or funded) to have large numbers of teachers working over the summer.  Providing them with intensive support this fall may be very difficult given resource constraints and the potential that schools remain closed or partially closed.

Each of these three options brings risks as well as opportunities. How do they compare to the default path that we are on, of promoting all students and hoping for the best?

I believe our best option is #3: Schools should work intensively over the summer to catch as many kids up as possible. Unfortunately, this would be extremely difficult for many districts as summer has now started and each of the constraints listed above could be insurmountable.

If schools are not able to fully catch students up over the summer they must identify which students are most behind and provide them with intensive supports. In her editorial, Dr Santelises lays out some of the ways this can be done. None are easy. All require resources. 

I see option #2 being our second best choice: Declare the 2019-2020 school year incomplete and start the 2020-2021 year with students spending the first quarter finishing their previous years’ work. Have schools pick up where things left off in March when buildings closed. Most of the data I have seen about the amount of student learning that has happened these last three months has been gravely concerning. Too many schools are patting themselves on the back for having “daily engagement” that is sufficient to trigger state funding but represents learning at a 90% reduced rate. 

I see #1 being the third best choice: Require all students to repeat their interrupted grade. This would be a blunt instrument of last resort that would likely create huge controversy and backlash — especially from parents who kept learning going on their own. There would understandably be huge pressure to promote kids who perform well on end-of-year exams.

Unfortunately, I see the “default path” that we are on now as our worst option: We seem to be on track to socially promote millions (or tens of millions) of kids without properly supporting them either over the summer or this fall when they return to school. The time is now for aggressive and creative efforts to support these students. Everything should be on the table including massive online tutoring and homework help support, bringing large numbers of additional adult helpers into schools, and providing students with nationwide access to the best educational technologies even if their schools do not have them locally.

If we do not make massive investments right now we should expect huge increases in future dropouts as well as academic careers that fall far short of their potential.

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