Archive for September, 2011

Ditch the Corpse


Both social promotion and holding children back in grade for failing to achieve according to arbitrary standards are counterproductive. The first is a disservice, the second a punishment. Both of these notions constitute a fundamental denial of the learning process and could easily be eliminated from the current educational narrative in one fell-swoop by simply eliminating grade levels.

If there were no grade levels from what are now considered kindergarten or first grade to 5th or 6th grade levels and if instead achievement or developmental levels were the gauge there would be no social promotion and no holding back. Nothing can change the simple fact of life that all  learning is personal and is accomplished at a rate appropriate to each individual.

So, what’s the deal here with this urgent push to end social promotion and replace it with the Draconian practice of holding back? What personal, social or political agendas are being served by demeaning and humiliating children with this form of punishment? Is there an assumption that children who do not learn according to arbitrary expectations are doing so deliberately? Have any of those who are making these proposals ever taken instruction in human developmental psychology? We are not talking about Skinnerian pigeons here, we are talking about children – human children – and it is a given that all humans, children and adults, learn at their own rate according to their abilities. (n.b.: Not all of Skinner’s pigeons learned at the same rate either.) I would ask the so-called reformers who propose the holding-back policy how well they would do today in a differential equations class. How would they feel if they were socially stigmatized for not keeping up with others who are more mathematically inclined in a chat about Newton’s thoughts on the Binomial Theorem for Fractional or Negative Exponents?

What do the proponents of holding children back believe would be gained by social stigmatization? Do those who propose this antediluvian educational practice believe they are actually helping a child when they humiliate him or her in front of peers, and are they presuming to speak for the child and assert there is no need to feel humiliated? Do they want not only to specify how quickly a child should learn but also tell the child how to feel about being held back? This sounds to me a lot like adding insult to injury.


How can anyone claim with a straight face that cutting school budgets, eliminating teachers, shortening the school day or week and limiting various classroom resources produces better educational outcomes and better serves a child who might be held back?

Where is common sense here? How can schools achieve more learning with fewer necessary resources? I think most educators would agree that, of all the educational resources, time is the one most closely related to good instructional outcomes. All of the most successful schools in the U.S. are making more time a priority and the KIPP schools are a sterling example of this. In one case, the Brooklyn Generation School ” … replaced most administrators with teachers and staggered all employees’ schedules allowing it to increase learning time by 30 percent without additional cost.” The result of this reordering of priorities and resources? “Last Spring, 90 percent of seniors graduated on time.” And this in the face of the fact that when those students entered the school, ” … only 20 percent were at grade level.” by the Bell&st=cse So, what is the logical answer to the challenge for better alternatives? I would say more teachers and more time for them to teach and for children to learn.

In “The Process of Schooling” (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1967), J.M. Stephens tells a beautiful story to illustrate the ongoing educational debate.

“This preoccupation with the conspicuous and artificial aspects of education reminds one of an amusing, if spurious, account of the origins of agriculture. There was once a suggestion that, in some early burial services, it was customary to place wild grain in the grave for the use of the deceased in his new life. Inevitably some of this grain was spilled around the edge of the grave. In that fertile soil it took root and flourished, ultimately providing a harvest. The survivors noticed this result, and soon a definite principle was formulated: At a certain season, bury a corpse with all the proper ceremonies, and in due course there will be grain to harvest. The corpse, of course, was the most prominent feature of the process, and it became the focal point around which the whole principle was organized. When the planting season came around, corpses were in great demand and were even produced to order when not otherwise available. It was upon treatment of the corpse, moreover, that the success of the harvest was supposed to depend.”

Sooner or later it dawned on people that the corpse could be left out of the equation which, needless to say I suppose, depressed the market for corpses.

Stephens went on to say: ” It is easy to focus our attention on the conspicuous, dramatic events that call for deliberate attention. Conversely, it is natural to ignore the humble ever-present forces that work consistently, independent of our concern.”

I used to read this passage to my students in both my “Schools and Society” and “School Reform” classes because it illustrates how we become enamored of and wrapped up in certain kinds of ideas – ideas which lead us away from a more fundamental and effective understanding of the process of schooling, the natural processes of teaching and learning. I wanted to focus their attention on those “humble ever-present forces” that determine the outcomes of teaching and learning. So many “great” ideas have repeatedly come and gone, such as the mechanistic approach with all its whiz-bang gadgets and the Draconian approach with its punishment and humiliation regimes, and so on. None of these easy answer approaches has ever worked, which is exactly why they are always playing musical chairs with each other in the ongoing educational and political debate. It’s time to ditch the corpse of the grade level system and get on with the task of meaningful education.

Good and effective education is not about social promotion or holding back – it is about time and attention given by dedicated and committed adults, teachers and parents equally, exactly as it was when people taught their young to haft a spear-head or cook a bison. Life and learning go on as they have for eons and some things will simply never change. Properly teaching a child what he or she needs to know to survive is the result of care, concern, close attention, thoughtful mentoring and a belief that teaching is important work, which belief must be reinforced by the community at large. It should go without saying I suppose that the whole of society must participate in and respect this essential task. Educating children was, is and always will be a community responsibility for the simple reason that our children are our collective future.

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