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Ending Social Promotion.

If a politician wants applause for a speech on improving the schools, all it takes are a few magic words. President Clinton knows this. In his State of the Union address, he declared: "All schools must end social promotion." On cue, members of Congress stood up and cheered.

The craze to end social promotion--the practice of moving children on to the next grade whether or not they've passed the previous grade--is national in scope and as bipartisan as you can get. Earlier this year, the Texas State Senate unanimously approved Gov. George W. Bush's plan to end social promotion.

Bush, the undeclared frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, pronounced the bill "a strong message that no child will be left behind in our state--that when a child is identified with a reading deficiency, we'll correct it early, before it's too late."

Hartford, Conn., welcomed a new school superintendent last month. "We will be relentless on literacy," Anthony Amato declared. Part of that relentlessness, reported The Hartford Courant, includes an end to social promotion.

Across the country in Escondido, Calif., school administrators recently announced a summer school program for 360 students who were not making the grade.

Interim superintendent, David Jenkins, told The San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Anna Cearley that remedial help was part of his effort to end social promotion. "Each year that goes by makes it more difficult for these students to be successful in high school," he said. California's new Democratic governor, Gray Davis, has made a statewide campaign against--you guessed it--social promotion, a key part of his education reform package.

Now it's hard to defend social promotion, which is one reason why politicians have latched onto the war against it. When Clinton declares "we do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material," everybody nods.

But you needn't be a cynic to see that this cause has a certain advantage for those who run schools: It moves the burden of failing systems from the adults who run them to the children who aren't making it.

"Simply pounding the kids on the head is not going to get the result we need," says Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a group that battles for better teachers and more accountability. If students fail "there are already serious consequences for the kids, but not for the adults."

Writing last year in the American Association of School Administrators magazine, Linda Darling-Hammond pointed to "dozens of studies" showing that holding kids back "actually contributes to greater academic failure, higher levels of dropping out, and greater behavioral difficulties.

"Instead of looking carefully at classroom or school practices when students are not achieving, schools typically send students back to repeat the same experience," said Darling-Hammond, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

"Little is done to ensure that the experience will be either more appropriate for the individual needs of the child, or of higher quality."

It's true, of course, that those who advocate an end to social promotion know that by itself, it's not a solution. Both Clinton and Bush would link its abolition to a variety of remedial and summer school programs--and, in Bush's case, to teacher training and to a broader program to demand results from teachers and administrators.

In Texas, state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, insisted on an amendment under which the ban on social promotion would stay in effect only if the state put up the money for the remedial programs. West's worry--a sensible one--is that the current eagerness to hold kids back when they fail tests might be just a "legislative fad."

If you want to be an optimist (and I certainly do), you might see the campaign against social promotion as part of a larger effort to ensure accountability by schools, teachers and students alike. If holding kids back focuses attention on how and why schools are failing, if kids get the help they need to move forward and if the practice leads to the hiring of better teachers--if all these things happen, it might work.

What the schools don't need is another gimmick, something that sounds tough in a politician's speech but doesn't produce reform.

"The federal government's job is to help educate poor kids, not to add more pain," says Haycock. "The way for the federal government to do that is to help poor kids have the best teachers, not the worst."
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Title Annotation:better teachers and more accountability are key
Author:Dionne, E.J. Jr.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 19, 1999
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