This commentary was submitted by Arnie Langberg, who has worked in public schools for more than 50 years, as a teacher, principal and cofounder of three public alternative schools. He is currently on the board of the Harmony Project, which provides professional artists as partners for classroom teachers in underserved schools.
The current and recurring discussion about retention versus social promotion has very little to do with the actual developmental needs of children.
Individual children develop continuously within themselves, although the rate of development varies widely between children. Schools’ needs, however, are measured in discrete chunks, such as grade levels and academic semesters and years.
This disconnect between the needs of children and the needs of schools begins with the child’s first day of school. The law in Colorado states that “any child who has attained the age of six years by August 1 of the year shall attend school.” That could include a range of 365 days of individual developmental differences, but the school’s needs require them to all begin around Labor Day.
This standardization to satisfy the school’s needs persists and the gap between the needs of students and the school widens. The stigma of not reading at grade level, confirmed by standardized tests based upon that artifact, is treated as a deficiency of the child. What is a failure of the system to adjust to the individual needs of the child has been turned around and considered a failure of the child.
I fully realize that the schools are faced with limited resources, financial and human, while being forced to respond to increasing demands from state and federal governments, but it is time for us to redesign our system to be congruent with the needs of our students, and from that we will find the strength to resist many of these misguided mandates.
Adams 50 school district has apparently taken on the grade level issue. Others should learn from them, and perhaps this could be the beginning of changing the discourse from the system’s needs to the needs of our students.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.