Anna Gregoline | March 24, 2004
What do you guys think of social promotion? I think this rather short article makes an interesting point.

Lori Lancaster | March 24, 2004
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Anna Gregoline | March 24, 2004
Will Reading Become Optional?
There's a big controversy in New York right now over "social promotion" -- that is, promoting students to their next grade level even if they haven't mastered necessary skills, specifically reading. I wonder whether, at the core of this debate, we're standing on the edge of a scary new future.

I've written here before about the phenomenon called "innumeracy," a phrase popularized a few years back in a terrific book of the same name by mathematician John Allen Paulos. In educational terms, it's the bizarre American notion that it is acceptable for kids, rather early in their education, to simply say they "don't get" math, and thus be excused from actually having to learn it.

This results in a lot of kids showing up at college and realizing that good jobs in fields like engineering or biotechnology aren't open to them because they just can't handle the numbers. As a result the economy ends up with a lot of lawyers and businesspeople, but fewer and fewer folks who can actually design and maintain the products.

Now I'm wondering whether reading and writing skills may also become optional in the brave new world of audio-video everything. That's not to say that future students will be unable to read or write simple sentences. (Even today's math-deprived students, after all, can usually handle addition and subtraction.) I'm referring to the more complex ability of crafting and comprehending long-form prose.

Many of tomorrow's service jobs will involve multimedia computer interfaces that provide images and icons, or respond to spoken commands. Language skills may be at less of a premium, making it possible to get by with only limited literacy. Only an elite group would need to read and write skillfully, to perform the jobs that require the ability to communicate complex ideas, such as developing a business plan or scripting a television show.

"Social promotion" is a complex issue, and by no means an invitation to illiteracy. But it's hard not to worry that it might become the first step in creating a class of citizens as limited by their lack of communications skills as many of today's students are by their lack of mathematics.

Lori Lancaster | March 24, 2004
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Melissa Erin | March 24, 2004
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Anna Gregoline | March 24, 2004
I, too, was always amazed when I had to take required courses instead of honors level and saw how much kids struggled with simple things like reading, or even just comprehension of the material. I'm sure things are even worse today. Education is really taking a downturn in our nation, as far as I can see. Funding is cut everywhere, behavior is out of control, and parents either don't take an interest or fight for their kid's right to not conform to some "silly ideal" of behavior or knowledge.

It makes me wonder what it will be like when my own future children go to school. It makes you understand a little why people are homeschooling in such numbers, but that is not a solution, in my eyes.

Lori Lancaster | March 24, 2004
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Anna Gregoline | March 24, 2004
Question: do homeschoolers get exempt from those standardized tests?

Melissa Erin | March 24, 2004
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Scott Hardie | March 24, 2004
This notion of social promotion in education is one of the biggest bullshit ideas I've ever heard, but first I'd like to mention the FCAT. It sounds terrible, and from what I get from talking to my teacher friends here, it is hated with a seething passion. One middle-school teacher literally teaches nothing but FCAT test preparation, all school year long. It's not a special class for FCAT prep, it's a normal class that has no more time for anything that isn't on that damn test. Hey, Washington: You know why standardized tests don't work? Because every school is different! Holy cow, who'd have thought that?! Instead of seeing the principal's role as being the most efficient proctor possible, how about letting a principal do his or her real job, which is recognizing what is best for the kids in his or her own school and trying to help them get it. It's a whole lot easier to let the many thousands of school principals nationwide do this evaluation than a few national/state administrators or test designers. The kids don't have anyone on their side in this process; it's like the whole education system has taken an antagonistic approach to teaching them: Get it or else!

One of my favorite adages is, "A camel is a horse designed by committee." I think the biggest cause of problems in our educational system is that everybody knows it is so important and everybody wants to try to fix it. Parents should focus on raising their kids. Lawyers should focus on arguing cases. Politicians should focus on writing laws. How about we leave the education to the people who make it their full-time professional focus, the principals and teachers? Is it not literally their job to know best how to teach our kids? Unfortunately they've had both hands tied behind their backs by every person of influence who thinks they know better how to do someone else's very important job. I for one do not call up nuclear technicians to tell them they aren't paying enough attention to the coolant pressure in their tanks, so I'm not going to assume that the teacher at the school down the street is somehow less capable of doing her own job than I am. Let's give a little trust and patience to the people we hire (and underpay) to perform a very important function in our society, instead of shoving legislation up their asses and telling them we know they need it.

As for the social promotion concept, it's sheer lunacy. I hope the victims grow up and condemn their parents for making such a boneheaded error in judgment. I hated math when I was young, but I use it every day now; this very website you're reading would not be possible without my grasp of algebra. And don't even get me started on the importance of communication skills; one effect of shortchanging kids there is that they won't be able to adequately express as adults how wrongly they were screwed as children, so the cycle could continue. Let's please stop worrying about whether the kids "feel okay" in a classroom of same-age peers and start worrying about whether they're getting what they're in that classroom to get, which are fundamental skills necessary for a productive adult life. And as much as it may seem like I'm taking both sides of the debate here, I'm not: While I do want "standards" enforced to make sure that my children learn what they need to know, I want those standards to be decided by the person who is sitting in the classroom teaching them, not by me nor by the Tampa City Council nor by Jeb Bush nor by any flywheel in Congress. It's time to put a little faith and trust back in the profession that needs it most.

Melissa Erin | March 24, 2004
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Erik Bates | March 26, 2004
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Jackie Mason | March 26, 2004
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Melissa Erin | March 26, 2004
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Scott Hardie | March 26, 2004
When Matt Preston and I drove through West Virginia, we stopped to pay for gas, and the register actually displayed the change for the clerk ("2 quarters, 1 nickel, 3 pennies").

Melissa Erin | March 26, 2004
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Kris Weberg | March 26, 2004
A few of my friends teach Composition at local community colleges. They've informed me that a passing grade is given if students can write around 3-5 pages of basically and broadly coherent material.

Jackie Mason | March 26, 2004
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Scott Hardie | March 26, 2004
That amused me about WIU: The same effort that would have gotten me a C at Bradley earned me an A or a B at Western. It was partly because the classes were less intellectual, but it was mainly because the teachers just didn't seem to care how hard you tried, as long as you completed a certain minimum of work. Then again, Bradley had looser attendance requirements (Anna can vouch for the American Lit class I skipped for weeks but still aced), which had a lot to do with fostering a lousy work ethic that I took with me to WIU. I don't mean to knock WIU; they aren't bad for a Hy-Vee League school.

Anthony Lewis | March 27, 2004
I don't have time to read through the posts because I have a class this morning (I'll do that later and respond).

I have been a beneficiary of social promotion. I was in junior high. Sixth grade to be exact. It wasn't that I didn't know the work, because I was a smart kid (I was actually the valedictorian of my fith grade graduating class). It was that I didn't want to DO the work. I'd play around in class. Mouth off slightly to the teachers. I guess I was trying to make friends (since a lot of my friends from elementary school, went to other schools). That year, my report card was littered with 45's and 55's. There is NO WAY I should have been promoted to seventh grade, yet I was (luckilly). I actually started seventh grade in almost the same fashion I got through the sixth grade. Until I got transferred out of my class into another class (my original class was for the smarter kids). I guess that kinda woke me up.

Do I support social promotion? Absolutely not. I should have been left back. But I wasn't. My problem with social promotion is the notion that the result of a standardized test should hold you back. It should be the child's performance over the course of the school year, and the consensus of that child's teachers.

The threat of being left back should (in theory) scare kids in doing the work, if they can do it...or getting help if they need it. Only problem with this is (and this is basically a inner-city problem), these kids think..."Who needs school when I can sell drugs to make loot?" or "I'm gonna be a rapper."

Jackie Mason | March 27, 2004
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Scott Hardie | March 27, 2004
Anthony: You? Mouth off in class? Couldn't imagine it. ;-) But what you describe sounds to me like what I want to see. It sounds like your teacher recognized that you were a smart, underchallenged kid who was ready for the next grade despite his report card. And she was right, and her good judgment benefitted you greatly. That's why I want teachers to be able to make these judgments on behalf of their students, not some bureaucrat in Washington who would have held you back because you did poorly on a standardized test. Every kid has different needs.

Jackie: Same thing as Anthony. The classrooms with the devoted teachers will have educated students who are ready to move ahead, and the other classrooms will have students who need more time to learn the same material. Let them progress differently, since that's what is in the best interests of the students. Having standardized programs would hold back the gifted students at one school or rush the unready students at the other (or both if it was inbetween); how does that help the kids?

Melissa Erin | March 27, 2004
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Anthony Lewis | March 28, 2004
Scott: No, my teachers hated me. For sure. My english teacher claimed that I hit her (I just pushed her a little bit). My science/math/homeroom teacher yelled at me a few times. My Espanol teacher called me a "beast". I don't remember why. They didn't see a smart kid. They saw a snot-nosed retard. :-)

Anna Gregoline | March 29, 2004
Melissa - the change thing made me sad. I am no math whiz, by any stretch of the imagination, and I can't do things easily in my head, but even I could have resolved your change pretty quickly.

I'm not sure what the solution is for our schools, but things just seem to be getting worse. Some of that stuff you have to do about positively reinforcing the students just seems like bullshit to me. If a kid is wrong, we should be able to say they are wrong. Feels like the whole drive-me-nuts style of parenting now, where they reason with the kid instead of saying, look, we have to do this now. ARGH!

Anna Gregoline | April 26, 2004
Fun article - I like the comparison!

Erik Bates | April 26, 2004
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Anna Gregoline | April 26, 2004
Are kids honestly lazier, or is the fear of failing now non-existant?

Erik Bates | April 26, 2004
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Melissa Erin | April 26, 2004
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Anna Gregoline | April 26, 2004
Yeah, make-up work always made me mad, as a good student. It's totally not fair to others.

The only time I did any extra work was in a math class I was failing- Algebra 3-4, I think. BUT I was going in early every day to work with the teacher, etc. Working my butt off. So I tried to get any extra points offered. I think I might have passed with a C out of pity/annoyance.

Never did learn that whole factoring thing - never got through my skull. Math is not my strong suit.

Scott Baumann | April 27, 2004
Okay, let me weigh in here.

First of all, as we have all surmised, social promotion is moronic. And unfortunately, part of the way things are going, is going to create more of it and not less. I'm talking about the "No Child Left Behind" program.

Now, I don't claim to know the complete ins and outs of the program, but I do know what I see first hand (currently student teaching, hopefully teaching full time next year) and what my fiance sees first hand (currently teaching at a high school).

In my fiance's school, No Child Left Behind, means that every class cannot fail more than 20% of the kids in that class. Thus, if you have a class of 35, you can only fail a max of 7. That doesn't sound too bad, until you realize that sometimes you have more than 7 that should be failed. Simple probability says that eventually you will have a classroom with more people in it that don't deserve to pass. So what do you do then? In this case, the answer is you have to pass some of them, that should otherwise be failed.

But it gets worse. My fiance's students know that she can only fail 20% of them. So, they all know that they only need to do just a bit more than the worst 20% of the kids. No need to strive for an "A", you just need to keep ahead of the "F's".

But it gets even worse. A majority of her kids couldn't make an honest "A" if they wanted to. They've been brought up in a system that let them continue on long after someone should have said, "Hold on a second!"

So what does she do? Well, one thing is that she curves most of her tests A LOT. At the beginning of the year, it wasn't uncommon for her to have a 20 point curve. She gives extra credit (a LOT of extra credit). And I can't fault her for doing it.

Say she has a class of 35 and of them, perhaps as many as 20 really should have been held back several grades ago. What should she do? Sure she can give them all an "F", but it won't do any good. She'll get fired and their grades will be readjusted.

So, some of them get an "A" when they probably should have gotten a "B" or "C" and some get a "C" when they should have gotten an "F". Thus, you end up with people graduating from that school and from another school in a nicer neighborhood and both passed their classes, only the diploma from one school really means more than the diploma from the other.

The only good solution I've heard of is an end of course test. Their are a basic set of fundementals that we can expect EVERY student to know when then get done with a class. Test them on those fundamentals. If they know them, then they continue. If they don't, then they don't.

And I know some people are against such tests, because people don't "test well" or whatnot. Well, if you have a bad day, you can take it again. At my school, if you fail the graduation test, then you can take it again in the summer. If you fail it then, you can take it again the next year.

Also, in any school, if you think that you are a type of person who legitimately has testing problems, then you can bring your concerns up and you will be evaluated. If you have a true learning disability, then you will get the help you need.

Please note, that I'm not saying that the system is perfect. However, it is by far better than having people in college who can't read (search just a little and you can find a story or two like this nearly every year).

So, until something better comes along, give me the end of course test. As for those teachers who "teach the test" or something similar, that is something that needs to be dealt with on the teacher end.

Err, well I guess I ranted enough. I'm supposed to be working on homework. I'll stop now.

Melissa Erin | April 27, 2004
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Anna Gregoline | April 27, 2004
Another thing - I feel like there is too much pressure these days on all kids to go to college. Yes, unfortunately, it's partly the job market - so many jobs demand at least a bachelors degree. But there are many people out there that really shouldn't go to college. I know that college was right for me, but there was enormous pressure on every person I knew in high school to go, and I'm sure many wish they'd done a trade school or at least investigated the options.

I myself wonder what would have happened if after high school I started interning somewhere, or took on an apprenticeship. A non-traditional path. I hope I can give my children a slightly better set of options.

Melissa Erin | April 27, 2004
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Kris Weberg | April 27, 2004
A lot of this goes back to the G.I. Bill that was passed after the Second World War, making college affordable for lots of people who, prior to the war, weren't wealthy enough to go on. Once college degrees became ubiquitous, a lot of employers started expecting them, and within a few generations it's become nearly impossible to get "white collar" work without the equivalent of a Bachelor's in something.

The alternative for most people is vocational training or something ratehr like apprenticeship in a skilled trade -- carpenters, plumbers, electricians, wuot and appliance repair, and so on. Learn well enough, and there's lots of money to be made, arguably as much or more than in "white-collar" work. And of course, a lot of lucrative computer work not related to programming or full-tilt electronics engineering doesn't require a college degree, just experience.

The problem of course, is that a lot of the same kids who don't go to college (or can't hack it there) won't bother with a trade school or a quasi-formal training program either. I know a lot of people who are basically working low-wage service jobs because they've limited their own possibilities in this manner. They're useful and vital jobs, often with long-term career prospects and managerial positions, but they will not provide many people a good standard of living for the initial years of work.

Jackie Mason | April 27, 2004
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Melissa Erin | April 28, 2004
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Kris Weberg | April 28, 2004
Ah, but by advocating army service for anyone who can't make it in cllege or afford it, you fuel the long-standing criticism that a volunteer army will by and large be made up of people from lower socioeconomic social strata. And considering who dies when a war breaks out, some argue that this amounts to a grave social injustice. Of course, the fact that the draft made exceptions for college students means that a conscript army doesn't evade this criticism either.


The problem of college costs was that they were always effectively desigend for the wealthy. Prior to World War II and the aforementioned G.I. Bill, you had to be either rich or brilliant to get into most universities, and tuition reflected this. The problem is that, rather than decrease tuition (by reducing costs, salaries, and construction costs) schools maintained their high tuition rates in the face of the universalization of college-level education. The government responded in part by beefing up the state university systems, and by systematizing federal funding of many universities. (This has also given the government the power to force any school taking federal funds to comply with civil rights legislation, such as the controversial Title IX.)



This is also part of why college sports programs have become so vitally important: the theory is that the alumni donations, ticket revenue, and broadcast and merchandise rights to college sports provide a source of income for schools and allow them to provide more scholarships. Of course, a lot of money ends up being used for stadium construction, advertising, equipment costs, and recruitment, such that at amny schools without "star" teams, the athletic programs actually lose money. However, the earning potential of lucking into or developing a "star" team and the power of tradition means that few to none of those schools will drop these programs anytime soon.

Melissa Erin | April 28, 2004
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Jackie Mason | April 28, 2004
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Kris Weberg | April 28, 2004
I knew plenty of people in high school who didn't care about their studies, or wanted the tuition breaks or job training that came witht he army. I saw one guy go from a closet alcoholic and near-dropout to a proud, lean Marine. He talked proudly of how well he was doing in the Corps, and about all the plans he had for college and work after getting out. It was peacetime. They wanted a minimum four-year hitch. For all I know, he might be proudly dead somewhere right now. But those are the risks, I suppose.

Anna Gregoline | April 29, 2004
I think it's important for everyone to finish high school. There's really no jobs out there for people who didn't at least do that. Not all of those people who would join the military would make a career out of it, so they'd have to rejoin the workforce at some point.

It IS unfair that the military is the option for many poor underpriviledged kids. I know that many do it for the money for college. But what's the alternative? No other place provides training and structure, etc. for a free monetary value for these kids (I say monetary because the cost can obviously be much greater).

Kris Weberg | April 29, 2004
The alternative would be a fully-funded vocational training program administered by the government, but on a broad scale. Of course, that would cost people money in taxes, so it will never happen.

Scott Hardie | January 20, 2005
Good news for anyone still interested in this issue: The Florida Board of Education has asked the the state to end social promotion. (link)

Anna Gregoline | January 20, 2005
Ooo, that is good news. I think social promotion is a serious problem in the schools these days - if kids can't do the work, why on earth would you send them on to harder work?


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