My end-of-term dilemma

Retention of students in a grade for an additional year has been shown, time and again, not to actually help in catching students up to grade level, but to increase the likelihood of students dropping out. Whether it’s based on grades or attendance, think about it: hearing something the same way twice does not likely have a better long-term effect on you than having heard it the first time. It makes sense to me, at least.

But then, if we’re not to retain kids who have not done a satisfactory amount of work to prove that they have learned the material deemed necessary by various states, countries, districts, schools, and teachers, what shall we do with them?

Let’s send them to summer school. That seems like a happy medium. That way, they have the opportunity to make up some of the learning they’ve missed and practice more before moving on to the next grade level in the fall.

Except – summer school has a limited time and limited faculty. And, let’s be honest: many of the teachers in summer school are not the best teachers who just finished working their asses off for 10 months: many summer school teachers are inadequately trained and/or in it for the money. Yes, that’s true during the school year, too, but from personal experience, the incidence of these types of teachers seems to be higher during the summer. I digress. There are only so many hours in the day, and facilities are only open so many days of the week, and summer school programs only run so long – students cannot possibly make up for a year’s worth of failures in a few weeks, so let’s all agree that summer school, while it can be valuable, is not a replacement for core content.

So, we’re back to square one: retain kids, knowing that they won’t likely improve and will actually probably go downhill; or send them on to the next grade level, knowing in your heart of hearts that they don’t understand and can’t perform the prerequisite knowledge and skills, thus risking the scorn of all teachers in future grades?

The real solution here is early intervention: we need to identify who is at risk of failing due to a lack of content mastery early enough in the term or the year so that we can get them the targeted, personalized, and differentiated help that they need. Or, better yet, intervene in the education of at-risk students before they even have the chance to fall behind: that is, in early childhood.

Buuuuuut teachers are overworked and underpaid, and while we stay after school and skip lunches regularly to tutor kids in need of a little extra help, what is to be done when those few students inevitably slip through the cracks?

Please comment below when someone invents a time machine. In the meantime, I am caught in this dilemma with no good solution. What do you think? What works for you? And how can we ultimately improve teaching environments to ensure that teachers won’t ever be faced with the dilemma because all of their kids are prepared to advance when the time comes? (Ok, I have SOME ideas on this…stay tuned!)



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2 thoughts on “My end-of-term dilemma

  1. I’m biased by my own experiences (aren’t we all?). And a few of the problems I encountered could absolutely be unique to Greenwood, SC in the late 1990s/early 2000s, since that’s when I dealt with these problems.

    1) Maybe don’t freak out so much about attendance. Valuable resources were wasted by my middle school to lecture me (by taking me outside of class…) on attendance and to threaten my parents with CPS. Um… I have Crohn’s Disease. I had a permanent doctor’s note on file explaining my frequent absences due to a) Crohn’s symptoms b) my weakened immune system c) doctor’s appointments in another state. And even with my frequent absences, I maintained straight As. I continued to have to waste time asking administrators for exceptions in high school, since the absence policy continued to be strict. Oh, and no, my parents weren’t going to fork over the time/money each time I had a fever to go to my pediatrician to get an extra doctor’s note.

    2) Divide up kids by ability. I know this wasn’t “best practice” when I was in school. Maybe things have changed. My middle school classes were either randomized, or evenly distributed by test scores/grades. This screwed over both the kids who needed extra help and the kids who were bored out of their minds. My 8th grade algebra class was so slow in learning the material that those of us who didn’t plan on retaking Algebra 1 in high school had to spend our free period after lunch learning additional algebra because the teacher didn’t cover it in class.

    3) This last point could just be the one teacher who I had who didn’t like the smart kids. Be flexible with your “no talking” policy. In one of my classes, I had a knack for explaining things to the students who sat near me. They totally grasped the concepts after I broke it down. I only did this if we were given time in class to start on our homework, and I had already finished. But even though the “class clowns” kept cracking jokes and passing notes and not working, my teacher only singled me out for talking. I later found out she also did this to the smartest kid in our entire grade who was in a different class.

    A large overhaul that probably won’t happen would be to revamp the school calendar. At-risk kids retain less information over the summer. Year-round school would still have the same number of vacation days during the year, but spread out in shorter breaks. Kids would be less likely to lose knowledge/skills in a large gap of education.


  2. I haven’t thought much about attendance policies, but I absolutely have a post in the works about your suggestions in point 2. Who was teaching you the extra algebra?

    I also am fully supportive of year-round schooling – I really think it would be better for students AND teachers to have more, yet shorter, breaks. (No idea what was going on with that teacher in #3, by the way.)


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