Grade Retention and Other Dead-End Educational Policies

Why do we keep returning to ideas that have been proven not to work?

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Education policy, like so many areas of lawmaking, is rife with reform proposals that, while attractive on paper, are supported by little or no evidence. Some are even proven failures. Yet once a lawmaker becomes fixated on a proposal, it seems that no amount of evidence will dampen that pursuit, and recent years have provided no shortage of evidence-free fixations: charter schools, cyberschools, private school vouchers, teacher merit pay, evaluation of teachers based on students' test scores and -- most recently and most persistently -- grade retention policies that require students to repeat a year in school.

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Let's look at grade retention. States across the U.S. are adopting mandates requiring that third graders with low reading scores repeat the grade. But retaining students is not a new idea. It's an experiment that has been tried on and off for generations, and it's been studied for almost that long.

The overarching message from research in this area is that retaining a low-scoring third grader will not help her do better than a similar classmate with similar scores who is moved along to fourth grade -- but she will be more likely to eventually drop out.

Viewed from a taxpayer's perspective, retaining a student will likely have one of two outcomes:

  1. She may drop out, meaning she will be less successful (and contribute about $60,000 less in taxes) over her lifetime, and she will be more likely to commit crimes and more likely to depend on government assistance; or

  2. She may complete high school, at a cost of an extra year of school -- about $10,000.

If retention had a substantial payoff, paying for an extra year of school would be worthwhile (although it nationally adds up to billions of dollars each year). But there's no benefit. With grade retention, we are paying more and getting a worse outcome.

That's the evidence. It's what we have learned (or should have learned) from decades of experience. Grade retention can be expected to have the same destructive results in 2012 as it did when it was tried 10 or 20 or 40 years ago -- or any of the years in between. Yet our lawmakers do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting different results.

To be clear, "social promotion" -- the movement of students from grade to grade with no meaningful intervention for those who fall behind -- is also not the answer. Instead, as proven approaches to address the problem of early reading gaps, research supports high-quality early childhood education, intensive early reading interventions, and smaller class sizes in early grades for at-risk students.

Evidence supports grade promotion combined with these sorts of interventions, and it clearly cautions against a systemic use of grade retention, even retention combined with additional academic support. A reckless disregard of such evidence is harmful. It leads to the waste of precious resources: our tax dollars and our children themselves.

Presented by

Kevin G. Welner

Kevin Welner is professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. More

Welner's work examines the use of research in policymaking, the intersections among education-rights litigation and educational-opportunity scholarship, and the school-change process associated with equity-focused reform efforts. He has authored or edited eight books along with 80 articles and book chapters. Welner has received the American Educational Research Association's Early Career Award (in 2006), for best journal article, and has been designated an AERA Fellow. He holds a B.A. in Biological Sciences from UCSB, and a J.D. and Ph.D. from UCLA.

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