Detroit To Ban Social Promotion... Unless It Costs Too Much

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Right at the top of the list in terms of failed programs that continue to be implemented in most urban school districts throughout the country is the practice of social promotion, which we have tried to address in the past here at perdaily, but which the reigning powers in the discussion about public education reform steadfastly refuse to even discuss. In the past, they justified this practice by citing the trauma it would cause students to be left behind their age or peer group, while never mentioning the greater trauma to these students of ultimately quitting or aging out of school without any skills that would allow the student to be gainfully employed. This is often the precursor to an unproductive life of poverty or, worse yet, being incarcerated at great expense to the state and society as we presently can see from the deficit that the California budget is presently running.

For those who finally realize that social promotion is a mistake, they rightfully ask where is the money going to come from? If students are held back, who is going to administer this remediation?

Detroit, which already has a $219 million deficit is about to find out if the social promotion issue can be effectively addressed. Detroit Public Schools "Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb signed an executive order Friday immediately banning teachers from passing students who are not proficient at their grade level to the next grade -- to the outrage of Detroit school board members who called it a political ploy in the midst of a court battle between Bobb and the board over academic control of the district. It is estimated that Bobb's edict will effect 20,000 students," which are "nearly a quarter of the district's 84,600 students."

 The superficial analysis of the problem on both sides is probably dooming Bobb's ending of social promotion proposal to failure. "Bobb said he wants to target the eighth grade, where roughly half of students scored less than proficient in math, reading or both on last year's statewide MEAP skills test -- a move that could cost about $16.3 million if each of 2,173 who failed reading were held back." The issue of social promotion is not a binary choice of yes or no. First, one must take cognizance of several foundational realities:

1. Human academic development is time sensitive. Once normal development windows of education are allowed to pass for any reason, the viability of the brain in processing certain foundational skills becomes less and less, until acquisition of certain foundational skills becomes realistically impossible.

2. In accepting the reality of #1, remediation programs must be formulated in complete recognition of how far behind the age/peer group the student is, where addressing the students deficits does not impose a one size fits all model, but asks the pragmatic question as to what is realistically possible for this student to achieve, given their present age and ability.

Bobb's statement that "Eighth grade is almost like a roadblock" and that "if you don't intervene and automatically promote them to the ninth grade it helps to raise the dropout rate and lower the graduation rate," is both true and false, because if you intervene at this late stage, the students will still ultimately drop out or fail to graduate. This is because you do not have a differentiated approach to human development that any sociologist or neurobiologist could tell you should be driven by the objective reality of how students' brains develop in the following critical periods: prenatal, postpartum, infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and adult. If remediation is driven by a subjective skills and deficits evaluation, this model of remediation would logically have a better chance of success.

"Detroit Public Schools (DPS) historically has not tracked the number of students who either are socially promoted or held back a grade and was unable to provide data to The Detroit News. But in testimony before the state House Education Committee last month, Bobb told lawmakers 20,255 DPS students not in special education are overage for their grades. This includes 8,983 non-special education high school students, about 37 percent of the high school population."

DPS, LAUSD, and all other big city minority filled school districts are caught between a rock and a hard place. Clearly, social promotion is not something that anybody would be for -- if they saw a cheap alternative. While there has always been an alternative, Americans as a relatively young country have not shown a willingness to expend the money necessary to fix the normal problems that any society develops over time as its infrastructure starts to decay or require modification. In the past, Europeans learned the hard way what kind of expensive social disruption comes when unresolved problems like public education are not addressed in a timely manner -- they ultimately wind up costing you far more money in dealing with the collateral disruption on society of not having adequately funded its social institutions.

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