Thursday, June 08, 2006

You Flunk: The Hardest Decision I Have to Make

A recent article in The Olympian talked about when it might be a good idea for a child to repeat a grade. It's a very fair article, and one that could be shared with parents should the topic ever come up.

We've done a lot of research on retention here at my school this year, mainly because we didn't have a coherent policy school-wide for staff to follow. In the upper grades it was mainly a threat--"If you don't start doing the work, you'll repeat the grade!"--which, while satisfying, never really seems to work all that well. For the younger grades we can easily identify the kids who are struggling, but it doesn't make the decision any easier.

Take C, who I had two years ago. He's easily one of my favorite students ever, but it was apparent from the minute he walked in the door that he was going to have problems. Every other kid could identify all the letters of the alphabet; he knew 13. Most of the other kids had the letter/sound correlation down pat; C could tell me the sounds of the letters in his name, plus S and T, and that was about it. When the Title teachers tested the 1st graders he came in last out of 103 kids. In talking to his mom it sounded like his Kindergarten was completely non-academic, which may have made for a pack of happy kids but is lousy for the 1st grade teachers.

I worked my ass off for C. Twice a week he'd stay with me after school so we could work together on the literacy skills he was missing. We had a great relationship and the growth he made was phenomenal!

And at the end of the year, he was still failing in every subject. I laid it all out for his parents--the struggles he had, the even worse struggles he was sure to have if he did go on, and after some tears (on both sides, I'll admit) we decided that he'd repeat the grade and I'd keep him.

His redshirt season in 1st grade went really well. He tested out of Title, and was right there for most of the year. I though it'd worked. In 2nd grade, things fell apart. He started the year with a teacher who was new to the grade (she'd taught middle school the year before), and then when she up and retired in December he had a brand new teacher struggling to get ahold of a tough, tough class. Complete and total regression followed.

In 3rd grade they had him tested, and now he's on an IEP.

Undeniably, retention didn't work. A year of his life wasted, and he's still one of our resource kids. I keep going back, though, to the great second year of 1st grade that he did have--if we could have built on that the right way, would things have worked out differently?

We have to consider, too, that the research on retention is overwhelmingly and completely negative. Nearly everything you'll ever find says that it works in the short term (like my boy above), but in the long run you increase their risk of dropping out, failing, and becoming communists. This is established fact.

And yet here I am, having two more kids repeat the grade again this year.

Damn the head, my heart tells me they need it. I think about sending them on to 2nd grade and I cringe, because they are not ready. They don't qualify for Sped because of their age, but they didn't respond to any other intervention I tried this year, either. I'm desperate to protect them from certain failure around the corner, but I also can't deny what the research says.

And yet I do deny it, an angry speck in front of an uncaring God, refuting the obvious because it suits me, yelling denials into the dark vast, because dammit I know I'm right and what does a PhD really mean anyway and I know my kids and the rules say I can so nyah and...



The questions come flooding in. Am I throwing away a year of their lives, or am I making their lives better by giving them what they need? Am I being overprotective, or just doing the best I can in a system that can't do what I need it to do? When they look back will they call what I gave them their golden opportunity or just one more bull*hit encounter, first in a bitter series with the schools?

So I struggle with it, pray, and hope for the best, as we all do. I forget sometimes the real power I have to shape these lives, a startling responsibility yet so easy to lose sight of under the paperwork, the bad news, and the day-to-day dealings of the classroom. Then retention time comes up and reminds me again.

My God, I'm a teacher. Lord, please--help me not to screw this up.

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Blogger NYC Educator said...

My daughter's second grade teacher told me that kids catch on at different times. My daughter was always a little behind, and didn't conclusively catch up till this year--fourth grade.

I sent her to SCORE, a chain run by Kaplan for two hours a week and I think it helped her a lot, particularly with the incredible amount of standardized testing kids have to face nowadays.

Sorry to hear this was so hard on you. In many ways, i think teaching high school is easier.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Huertero said...

I feel your pain at the high school level! I admire your efforts to be sure every one of your darlings gets what he or she needs. I support retention despite the data, though more fervently for middle schoolers. Otherwise they come to me expecting a free ride.

8:39 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

But from your story, it is not proven that the RETAINING of this student did not work. It sounds like his third grade placement paved the way for this problem.

The problem is that kids who qualify to be retained are high-risk already. I have a problem with the studies claiming that RETENTION causes drop-outs.

I taught middle school for many years, and then I moved up to the high school. There was a window of six years where I could observe my former middle school students at the high school and keep track of their performance. From my unofficial and yet meticulous observation of the students who should have been retained and yet weren't, I have seen loads of struggle and failure, including dropping out. Apparently NOT retaining these students had no effect upon their "success" rate either.

They just got to high school without a minimum level of skills and knowledge and then failed course after course in most cases-- just like they had in middle school. One could make the ase that an injustice was perpetrated upon them by not holding them accountable for their struggles early enough that they could recover.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

The problem is that kids who qualify to be retained are high-risk already. I have a problem with the studies claiming that RETENTION causes drop-outs.

Do studies show that retentions cause dropouts, or only that there's a correlation between the two?

FWIW, I've no problem with accountability. If you're a high schooler and you haven't met the requirements to pass/graduate, then I'm quite sorry for you, but that's how it is. For my kids, though, I think it's a little different out of necessity. I've promoted kids who didn't meet the 1st grade standard, but something happens and they take off in 2nd grade. I just wish I was better at knowing who will do it and who will continue to struggle.

The questions is, when should a student truly be held accountable for their learning? K? 10 years old? Middle school?

7:54 PM  
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5:02 AM  

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