Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Social Promotion, or, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect Yer Sheepskin or Dollars

Jim Hall and Stephanie Richard disagree to a considerable extent on how to address "social promotion", i.e., the idea that a kid can fail to master the subject matter in grade school and still be promoted to the next higher grade. I have serious problems with "social promotion". Its a problem we have to solve. In a world where education and competence is the difference between a successful and failed economy, we can't afford to be second or third tier when it comes to the quality of our graduating classes.

Social promotion can eventually lead to failure. When failure eventually arrives, it is sometimes greeted by the student with astonishment and bitterness. Students who have automatically been promoted may expect that rewards and promotions are automatic rather than earned. Imagine the surprise when they finally are told they fail to measure up. Now, whose fault was that? Certainly not the failed and angry student, right? Shoot the messenger.

Social promotion was the policy in Hawaii's public schools. My wife saw 40% of the high school graduates arriving at her community college unable to test into Freshman English and over 60% fail to test into Freshman Math, in spite of having collected their high school diplomas. Needless to say, remedial studies were a growth industry, sucking money out of other, college level programs. By the time we left Honolulu, over 4,000 students were enrolled in her college's remedial programs, which she co-directed (the co-directors being professors of Math and Language Arts). Remediation, or as I like to call it, "damage control", was among the biggest programs on campus. Given the pressures to bring students up to speed after they had learned bad habits from K through 12, we teased her that it was the educational equivalent of the Russian Front.

We were not immune at the university center, Manoa. To avoid the political fallout of too many incoming Freshman being declared incompetent, my wife's college brought her over to teach  "English 22" to incoming frosh who were unable to master Freshman English, i.e., English 100. Likewise, we had trouble recruiting majors in Geosciences, since it was a B.S. program requiring things like Calculus. If you can't pass into Math 100, you ain't gonna pass Calc.

The bottom line with dodging the issues of failure is that the other shoe eventually drops, whether it be high school exit exams (that according to news stories, are sometimes faked by pressured school staff), college remediation, or being fired from a job because you can't make change, take down a menu order, or properly set a computer-aided machine's tolerances. For that matter, the next time you are getting a prescription filled, you might wonder if the clerk behind the counter really does have high school reading comprehension skills.

Wouldn't it be better if we set both standards and expectations (not to mention rewards) early, say, in 3rd Grade, and set them for students, teachers and most of all, parents? When I was a kid, it worried us more than a little to think we might flunk and be held back. Using both the carrot of coaching and remediation and the stick of the metaphorical (don't worry, not the literal) dunce cap in elementary school might not be a bad idea.

I hope one thing that Jim, Stephanie, and Gov. Martinez can agree on is that in order to stop the practice of social promotion, we need to work on the problems that beget the underlying failure. Those are not limited to the schools, either. When I was a kid, the expectations of high scholastic achievement started in the home and without that grounding, it was tough to make it stick in the classroom. We can't blame students, teachers or school administrators for the problems we adults all have a hand in creating.