Too much retention, too little intervention


NEWS THAT 20,000 of 70,000 Baltimore students in grades one through eight will not be promoted to the next grade may be regarded by most people as a horror. But others, including some members of the city school board, view it more as a cause for hope. I see it as both.

As a consultant to the city school system, I conducted a study and staffed the task force of school staff and community representatives that drafted the first "tough" policy to end "social promotions" in 1999. The policy has evolved since then, for better and for worse.

As it now stands, the policy is too much of a good thing.

Great credit is due to school officials for a bold policy, including summer school for students facing retention, that is probably the strongest in the nation. Students and the school system itself must be held accountable for meeting high standards of performance.

Yet the board and schools CEO Carmen V. Russo have not heeded the most basic lesson learned about promotion policies from the national experience. To be fair to students, the task force wrote, high promotion standards must be closely aligned with the availability of comprehensive interventions such as tutoring "so that large numbers of students are not retained."

The national research is clear. Retention doesn't work; it leads to failure and higher dropout rates. But "social promotion" doesn't work, either. Only timely academic and behavioral interventions -- especially tutoring -- are effective.

But those interventions, beyond summer school, hardly exist. In fact, thousands of additional city students would have been retained if city officials had not lowered the promotion score on standardized tests to below "grade level" and waived the standards for many students.

The painful truth is that despite well-deserved praise for progress, city schools have a long way to go. And unfortunately, the school system has blemished its record on the promotion policy by flagrantly exaggerating the availability of interventions.

It has breached its promise to provide significant extra help to students who are retained. It has overstated the quantity and quality of tutoring during the school day and after school and the capacity of multidisciplinary teams to assist classroom teachers.

So what's the city school system -- caught between the rock of retention and the hard place of "social promotion" -- to do?

First, reprioritize the current plan for spending additional state funds under the Thornton legislation. It virtually ignores tutoring and other interventions, particularly the need to diagnose and treat reading difficulties in pre-kindergarten through first grade. Left untreated, these children will be retained time and time again, swell special education rolls and benefit little from middle and high school reform.

But assuming that more money doesn't materialize, what then? The current number of retentions is unacceptable and will lead to a rapid increase in the number of students who are retained twice or more and almost inevitably wind up as dropouts.

Then should the promotion standards be lowered? Or should the number of students who are promoted without meeting the standards be increased?

The lesser of the evils, in my view, is the latter. The board and Ms. Russo must develop a calibrated policy that better balances the high promotion standards and availability of interventions. Retaining students two or more times must be avoided at almost any cost. And principals must be given greater discretion to promote students who don't meet the standards, subject to guidelines and strict auditing to ensure sound judgment and systemwide equity.

It's not an easy course load for school officials. But there's hope because they've earned good grades so far and have continued to raise the bar on themselves as well as students.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary. His e-mail address is

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