Social Promotion — Institutionalizing Ignorance

by on March 16th, 2004

Social promotion is the misguided belief that school children should be kept with their age group regardless of their academic performance lest it adversely affect their self-esteem and their attitude toward school.

New York, which has the largest public school system in the country, finally got a whiff of reality when its Panel for Educational Policy ended the pernicious practice by an 8-5 vote Monday night. This happened only because Mayor Bloomberg fired three of his appointees and replaced them at the last minute. Opponents almost certainly will run to court claiming that a third grader’s performance on a single test shouldn’t determine his fate.

I can accept that the idea of a retake for those who failed is valid, and the Bloomberg plan allows for class work to come into consideration for students who don’t pass the test. However, I don’t think Johnny is entitled to too much self-esteem if Johnny can’t read in the third grade. Fail the kid, let him take the year over, and the world won’t end. And if he gets teased, maybe it will get him off the Nintendo long enough to get his work done. The fact is, if you’re not reading on grade level at the age of 8 or 9, you’re going to be playing catch up the rest of your (likely shortened) academic career.

As a nation, we have become so obsessed with success that we have forgotten that failure is much more common and offers much greater scope for learning. I am tired of going to Little League awards ceremonies where every child in the league gets a trophy. I am tired of dumbing down education to the point where everyone passes regardless of achievement. I am particularly tired of those who can’t watering down the accomplishments of those who can – in every field.

What we need to do is change the attitude toward school exams. They should be diagnostic, like a medical exam or an auto inspection. They exist to screen out problems that can be addressed. Does failing an eye exam destroy self-esteem? No, it says you need corrective lenses (I will accept that glasses can make people feel awkward – different point). I don’t know of anyone who felt worse about themselves when the family car fails an emissions test at the gas station. If you fail a reading test in third grade, it means the teacher, the parents and the student need to work together to fix the problem. There’s no shame in failing, but there is in ignoring problems.

Jeff Myhre