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THE BALTIMORE SUN

Helping kids to do better

The effectiveness of retaining students who don't meet grade-level standards depends on several variables, including how the student is told of the decision, what is done to help the student and the student's own learning ability and outlook on education.

The child who is being held back should be helped to understand that it is not a punishment, but an attempt to help him or her develop needed skills. Letting the child believe he or she is stupid or lazy, or that the teacher acted out of personal dislike for the child, accomplishes nothing.

The child needs to feel there is something to be gained from retention.

Individualized testing is also needed to show the student's weaknesses to be corrected as well as the strengths to build on. Simply covering the same material a second time in the same way will not teach the child anything, except perhaps rote memorization.

And if a child has a learning disability, that should be identified and addressed, so that the child can learn how to compensate and study.

As a teacher, I heard the argument that retaining a student damages the child's self-esteem. But no one could explain what level of self-esteem a student would have when he or she arrived in grade 12 unable to read or compose a simple sentence.

Students who are taught by methods they understand, who are respected, encouraged, challenged and made to feel that education is important, will learn - even if they have to repeat a grade along the way.

Judith A. Free

Baltimore

Students must learn the skills they'll need

Allowing failing students to advance only does them a disservice and results in less effective schools.

This is especially true at the elementary and middle school levels, where the foundation for all future education is being built.

Simply passing these students to the next grade level will not correct the underlying weakness that caused their failing grades.

And, not having mastered the basics, these children will experience difficulty again and again throughout their education when these skills are required to solve more complex problems.

Furthermore, already overwhelmed teachers receiving these students will have to devote additional attention and resources to address the deficit in knowledge and skills expected at that level.

As a result, achieving students may suffer and begin to fall behind.

It is unfortunate that any student has to repeat a grade; however, allowing failing students to advance holds much more potential for real damage to the student and the school.

Christopher H. Godwin

Baltimore

I have taught in a Baltimore public high school, dealing with ninth-graders who came to high school with no concept of the need for education, much less study skills, reading comprehension, mathematical prowess or historical perspective.

They were simply moved along in a system that rewarded failure by ignoring it.

We in the school system call this "benign neglect." But it is criminal to allow students to enter high school or even middle school with a second-grade reading level.

These students then drop out. Of the 1,900 new ninth-graders entering Lake Clifton/Eastern High School in 1995, only 286 graduated in 1999.

Where do the other 1,614 end up? They become statistics. They clog our prisons, drug treatment centers and hospitals because they have not been prepared for the real world.

They act out their anger at an uncaring system by destroying themselves and others.

We cannot allow this to continue.

The embarrassment that the city school administration is experiencing now over retaining 20,000 students is just a painful necessity.

We either start reversing the trend now or continue to juggle numbers while our children suffer needlessly because someone at North Avenue doesn't want his or her dirty linen showing.

Vincent C. Kimball Jr.

Baltimore

Yes, students who haven't met standards should be held back, if the new year's teaching approach is different and meets the students' needs.

As someone who has worked in the city schools for nine years, I have known 16-year-olds in the ninth grade reading on the third- or fourth-grade level.

They were dire victims of the "social promotion" policy.

Joyce Wolpert

Baltimore

I am shocked and saddened that so many youthful students, 20,000 in the city, will be required to repeat a grade.

But requiring a student to repeat a grade allows that student additional time to grasp the knowledge he or she did not initially assimilate.

And it can teach a very valuable lesson in life: Failure can and will happen, but if you try, really try, you can conquer failure and be successful.

William Bystry

Fallston

I was a student who had to repeat a grade.

At the time, I thought it was the most humiliating thing that could happen to me. But when I look back, I see that this was the best thing that could have happened to me.

After repeating the sixth grade, I became a better student. I continued school successfully and graduated from high school as a member of the National Honor Society.

I furthered my education, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree from Morgan State University in 1989.

Today, I am an independent woman employed by the state of Maryland and living in Baltimore.

Being required to repeat a grade may be a disappointing time for a student, but the rewards will last for a lifetime.

Tanya Barton

Baltimore

I agree with the city schools' decision to hold back many students this year so that they may acquire the skills they need before moving to the next grade level.

It's the schools' job to instruct, and make sure the students come away with some minimal level of education; it is not their job to make sure all students feel good about themselves in blissful ignorance.

A student's self-esteem should come from mastery of the subject matter presented, not from an obligatory grade promotion each year.

Tom Syvertsen

Baltimore

As a student, I believe that if any student fails to meet the standards for his or her grade, that student should be required to repeat the grade.

After all, if a student can't succeed in one grade, why should we expect him or her to be capable of moving on to the next?

It's an unreasonable expectation - and one that's too stressful for the student.

Erin E. Binkley

Baltimore

Students need to know they are held responsible for their efforts - in school, in work, in life.

Does holding children back hurt them? It may hurt their egos, but they need to learn, as a foundation for their lives.

And eventually the schools will become more effective and creative in trying to find ways to teach reluctant and sometimes undisciplined students.

Gretchen L. Schlenger

Phoenix

In deciding whether to require students to repeat a grade, consider the stigma facing a person who goes through life unable to read, write, add or subtract.

A school system is supposed to educate people for life.

And parents must know their children, and provide for their needs. Knowing a child is struggling, parents should coach the child, provide extra help, ask family members to assist, use any and all means to help their child.

However, if all this fails, the child should repeat a grade until he or she has a basic knowledge of the basic skills.

The social stigma of repeating a grade is often temporary, particularly if it happens in an early grade.

But failing to use the repeat system means sending children into classes where they will surely fail.

Sonia Looban Greenspon

Baltimore

I am a high school student and I pride myself on hard work and dedication to my schoolwork. Promoting students to higher levels who haven't made the grade discourages my efforts for the sake of "political correctness."

And, in essence, this approach rewards attendance instead of knowledge.

Christianah Kolajo

Bel Air

I feel you harm a child and the education system by advancing a child if he or she is not ready for it and has not earned advancement.

Perhaps "provisional advancement" to a class taught by a specialist in learning problems is an alternative idea worth considering.

In provisional advancement, children who want to learn could be retrained to warrant advancement and moved back into the mainstream, perhaps without the loss of a grade.

Those who do not want to learn could be given some special training not related to academia.

Robert L. White

Perry Hall

To the extent that we "pass on" students who have not acquired the skills that should have been imparted in any grade, we hurt them.

Since each succeeding grade is more difficult and requires more information, better-defined skills and higher expectations, those students fall ever-further behind.

But the real unfairness of such a policy is the increased burden that it places upon the teachers in higher grades.

For the good teachers, it is an unreasonable burden to expect them to impart a higher level of skill when students lack the foundation on which to build enhanced skills.

For substandard teachers, social promotion gives them an excuse for being ineffectual.

Robert L. DiStefano

Abingdon

Holding students back who are having difficulty learning is definitely to their advantage in the long run.

Therefore, retention creates a more effective school system.

C.R. Brownley

Baldwin

Holding back students who haven't met standards may seem cruel and intimidating. However, looking at the situation long-range, one must realize that these kids will face the real world of competition as they enter the workplace.

And they will find few employers who will continue to keep their services just because they are nice people.

Therefore, kids should not be promoted unless they've passed the required standards. It may be discouraging now, but it will help prepare them for the future.

Elizabeth Myers

Baltimore

Holding a student back who hasn't met the standards for his or her grade not only helps the child, it also makes the school more effective.

I am glad the public schools are holding students back, even though it means more time in class and, yes, more expense for the taxpayers.

If the 20,000 students Baltimore held back had been promoted, the long-term costs to society would be far greater.

Rosalind Ellis

Baltimore

We cannot continue to treat failing students as if every student is owed a passing grade lest we harm his or her tender ego.

I must ask advocates of such treatment: When and where will these individuals learn to cope with reality in a world of competition, survival and, yes, even failure?

Passing all children, regardless of whether they are qualified, also diminishes the distinction of the diploma for those who worked hard to succeed, while rewarding academic apathy. And it frustrates future employers, who are deprived of a way to identify the qualified applicant.

To me, the answer is obvious - commend achievement, and try again to correct our failures.

William G. Volenick

Ellicott City

Holding back students who have not satisfactorily completed their academic work is a necessary (but not sufficient) part of the solution to their lack of progress.

Parents, educators and students must also understand that parental involvement and support must precede and accompany real academic progress, except in very rare cases.

Franklin W. Littleton

Baltimore

I salute the courage of Baltimore's public schools in announcing that 20,000 city elementary and middle school students would be required to repeat a grade. As painful as the decision may be, social promotion is a disservice to the children and to the community.

Post-school experiences only reward performance. Any school system that encourages social promotion teaches children bad lessons: that mediocrity is permissible, and that there is an equal reward for effort and the lack of effort.

Promotion in schools should be a reward to learning, not a prize for attendance. This lesson should be instilled in the minds of our youths at early ages, so everyone understands from scratch that only hard work has a reward, and that nonperformance has a dear cost.

A contrary message will not teach the children to grow up.

Ebenezer F. Kolajo

Bel Air

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