Saturday, April 10, 2010

On failure

A surprising article today from the Niagara Falls Review. The content isn't surprising, but the willingness of the paper and the reporter to tackle the question— how many kids fail elementary school grades?
The key to this coming together? The report from the Ministry of Education on how many children are "retained" in one grade while the remainder of their age-group cohort advances to the next grade. The article doesn't specify how these were obtained (simple request? Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request?) but they're the foundation of the answer to the likely question asked in that newsroom. The chart doesn't reproduce well on the website (likely looked way sharper in print) but shows how few are held back.
Frank Fera, one of two Catholic board trustees representing Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the- Lake, said he's fairly certain the number of elementary students that fail a grade in any given year is zero or pretty close to it.
"I don't know of any principals at this time who are retaining students," said Fera, who served 34 years as an elementary school principal and teacher in Niagara and 10 years as a trustee. "It's a philosophy we don't believe in at this time.
"Even when I was an educator, we never retained students at that time."
Like (Niagara Catholic dir of ed John) Crocco, Fera supports the concept of social promotion — passing underachievers along to the next higher grade with their peers while at the same time providing remedial supports to the students.
Both cite a large body of research over the past 40 years that concludes failing students, particularly those at the elementary level, does more harm than good.
Fera said he believes the majority of parents of elementary children know their children will in all likelihood be promoted, even in cases where a student's grades show achievement below provincial standards in multiple areas.
Ontario's elementary school report cards include a section that indicates the student's current promotion status. Students are judged to fall into one of three categories: "progressing well toward promotion," "progressing with some difficulty toward promotion" or "promotion at risk."
"If you want my personal opinion on that, it's a sort of cover-your-ass sort of thing," said Fera. "They put it on there in the (event) a child is retained and they then have to justify it, so they say, 'Well, here, we put it up at the top that the child was at risk.
"But in most cases today, there's communication with parents all of the time, so the parents are aware the child is not functioning where he should be or she should be. And at the same time, there are programs in place to help every child." 
The graphic with the article and its first few paragraphs seem written to elicit shock and outrage, but then the sources quoted are like a wet blanket on getting pissed off about students being promoted from year to year independent of academic progress. The verbage at-risk is (or was, at one point) meant to mean "at risk" of not graduating— or, er, becoming an "early school leaver" in ministry parlance at one point.
Can an "at-risk" student still find success in high school and as an adult? I think so, provided there are reasonable options to accommodate their skills, abilities and interests in high school that lead either directly to workplace and apprenticeships or to post-secondary programs. Are these alternate successes any better than the old-fashioned failing elementary numerous times and then dropping out? Or, going back to the even-older days, not really caring about whether a child failed in elementary because they just had to know enough (at the time) to farm or work on the shop floor?
This was the subject of some recent back-and-forth between myself and a few anonymous folks in the comment section of a recent post— but this article doesn't seem to hammer the nail in the coffin on whether or not practice should change when it comes to social promotion.
Kudos to the Review however— asking the ministry for the rates is not something I would have thought to do. I've been scooped.


Anonymous said...

As I understand it the source of concern re: a no-fail policy was a memo sent to boards from Ben Levin. I believe it was linked to or even discussed over at Mended

I actually like this article but it does leave some holes in the form of explanation.

Your comment about those "older days" and not caring about whether a child failed in elementary because they just had to know enough to farm or work on the shop floor" still exists in my community ER. You'd be surprised at how many students(and their parents) have the minimal ambition for moving out of town and making it just to graduation because they have no plans for their lives but landing a manufacturing job locally.

I recall when I first came to this community I was shocked at how elaborate the Grade 8 graduations were. Where I came from it wasn't a big deal - in fact I remember attending a short ceremony after school that our local legion put on, and then going to play baseball.

When I asked about the Gr. 8 graduation extravagance I was told it was because it was because many of the students wouldn't finish high school and so it was the only graduation they would likely experience.

With the loss of one huge manufacturer this poses a huge problem for those students who want to make this town their home after high-school.

Just this morning when my husband and I went out for breakfast our server was a girl who won a litany of awards in high-school, who ended up dropping out of college because she just wasn't interested in continuing with school. This is isn't a unique story either.

It's just the way it is. You'd also be surprised at how few Gr. 12 grads from my small rural town go on to higher education. If I remember correctly it's less than 30%.

Yet one our east in our board and the story is entirely different.


PS - I was socially promoted in Gr. 13 when I failed French - I graduated anyway, however,I ended up living in Montreal after high school until I decided what I wanted to do and was immersed in French which proved in my case to be the better teacher.

Sandy Crux said...

Hugo, FYI John Robbins interviewed me by telephone in preparation for this article, although he didn't use any of my quotes. But, he did a good job. If he reads this, well done!

What he and I discussed was the aspect that while the students don't fail when they are in school, they fail much more once they are in the big wide world. My private practice was full of young adults who couldn't read or write properly. In other words, all the school system doing is just putting the failure off for a lot of kids, making sure many fail later in life.

So, there is a slant for you that John did not cover. The implications for the future of kids who are just pushed through the system is huge. It means the "system" simply doesn't have to see the hit to their self esteen then.

urbanteach said...

I posted on this topic at MendEd a while back, to point out that some boards (not Bluewater, apparently) make extensive use of a third option beyond promotion or retention. Students who don't meet the criteria for promotion because their achievement is below Level 1 are neither promoted nor retained, but "transferred" to the next grade. This is noted on their report card.

In some ways it makes no difference, because the student moves on with his age cohort regardless of his achievement, but it conceals the fact that in some schools teachers do report honestly on the student's level of achievement and do not pretend that the student has "passed." Ideally a student who is transferred would get some academic support in the next grade but this does not always happen.

However to the outsider looking in, it appears that all students have "passed" but this may not actually be the case.

Education Reporter said...

The comments so far reflect how complex this issue is. Simply failing doesn't provide a panacea to the eventual impact of socially promoting a child who won't be able to function in an adult world.

I would hope we've been making some progress. The Learning to 18 objectives, while drawing their own criticism, have (re)introduced viable options for students so that they can complete high school and move on with the skills they need to find success-- ie: sustainable employment. If things work the way intended (and that's a leap of faith), students who are socially promoted/transferred/whatever are ID'd and then either given academic supports or the options they need to take the programs that will lead to the skills that will lead to sustainable living.

To go on a related tangent, when teaching swimming instructor courses, I've had several conversations with students regarding social promotion and "no-fail" policies when it comes to evaluating swimming students. Had an intense discussion in one course (one of the candidates was a teacher) about this-- students "incomplete" levels if they haven't formed skills to standard. When it comes to more advanced courses in lifesaving, they don't incomplete, they outright fail. (I failed my fair share...) In practice, many are promoted through the program and then continue to struggle in subsequent levels. Most of the time it's due to inexperienced instructors, fear of parental reaction (I paid $50 for my child to fail?) and a simple reluctance to hold those cute little darlings back. My perspective here is that not holding them back can put them at risk-- if the kid can't float, they can't float. That said, there are continually changes to the direction on evaluation within the program, providing options. The most recent asks whether the child can do the skill to standard. If not, the instructor considers whether additional practice would remedy the skill-- if so, then the skill should be marked incomplete and the child held back. If practice won't help, the third question is whether promoting the child to the next level puts the child or their peers in danger. If yes, the skill is marked incomplete and the child held back. If no, or if an adaptation can be done to keep the child safe, the skill is marked "n/a" and the child moves on.

This example complicates any point I have made on social promotion in an elementary school setting, but I thought it worthwhile to raise.


Anonymous said...

Hi ER,

Please allow me to say that I know you're one busy guy but I want to thank you for continuing this sane communication vehicle to discussion the real hot button issues in education.

I appreciate that folks here by and large are respectful of each other unlike some other education blogs...Mended being one that I just looked in on. And they wonder why Bluewater's a mess!