History Repeating Itself: Social Promotion Making a Comeback

Nothing truly goes out of style due to the fact that history often repeats itself, and the continuous admonishment and reemergence of social promotion within education is a prime example of this notion. The previous blog post highlighted how the practice of promoting students to the next grade level despite their failure to meet the expected competencies contributes to enduring effects on individuals’ future employment and/or educational pursuits. This post will take a closer look at this practice known as “social promotion,” which is the opposite of grade retention – requiring a student to repeat a grade level in order to achieve the expected competencies and requirements.

Although the idea of social promotion was instituted in the 1930s, it became widely popular throughout the 1970s as a result of the education reform of the time. However, as concerns arose over the seeming lack of enforcement of academic standards, many states and cities began to legally ban the practice. In fact, social promotion was banned by the mayor of New York City twice, once in 1999 and again in 2004. The life cycle of social promotion is as follows: as the number of students being retained increases, social promotion is often instituted; as academic standards are lowered, social promotion is disparaged and eliminated.

Recently, schools have turned to the practice of social promotion yet again. Some have speculated that the high standards of the new Common Core curriculum have something to do with the comeback of social promotion. As a result of more rigorous standards, more students are finding themselves struggling academically with the increased number of standardized and placement tests as well as the increased difficulty levels of the curriculum-related assignments. Furthermore, when students fail to meet the new education requirements at the end of the year, teachers have to determine whether they should practice grade retention or social promotion. While many believe the return of the practice to be a positive occurrence, many are not in favor of the return of social promotion. Mostly, those who oppose grade retention favor social promotion, while those who oppose social promotion favor grade retention.

Many individuals argue that students are better off being socially promoted than they are being left back. Those in favor of social promotion believe that the practice promotes a student’s self-esteem and helps them to not lose motivation as they continue their academic career along with their peers. To add to this argument, a 2007 study suggested the inexplicable link between retained students and dropping out of high school. In addition, socially promoted students have proven to surpass retained students when taking standardized tests and acquiring reading and math skills. Similarly, the Minnesota Mother-Child Interaction Project, a longitudinal study, found that 52% of socially promoted student graduate high school, while only 24% of retained students achieve the same goal. This is problematic due to the fact that non-high school graduates are less likely to be employed, to maintain employment, and to earn adequate wages.

Advocates of grade retention trust that this “tough love” approach is advantageous in regards to a student’s intellectual development. Not only do retained students exhibit significant improvement within repeated grades, but they also assume the responsibility of exhibiting self-discipline and confronting and learning difficult material. Grade retention may be a hit to students’ self-esteem, but it definitely increases their maturity level early on. While socially promoted students are more likely to graduate from high school, life after high school graduation is rather difficult for these individuals. As discussed in the previous blog post, the practice of socially promoting and graduating students without sufficient skills only produces adults with low skill levels, who find it harder to secure and maintain employment.

It seems that without social promotion, there is grade retention and, without grade retention, there is social promotion. With the higher standards of the new Common Core curriculum, teachers, administrators, and policymakers are now forced to choose between the two. However, even this decision is, in many cases, impossible to determine. Social promotion may positively impact one student, while retention may yield positive results for another student. A single solution, whether it is social promotion or grade retention, doesn’t work for every student. There must be an effective interaction between students and their families and teachers in order to render a decision that best fits students’ academic needs.

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