Unfortunately, many of the most public policy debates in education come down to research verses common sense. But common sense is like truthiness, in that it does not have a lot of regard for what is actually true or require any sort of real basis for belief. Being more thoughtful, in this sort of case, means looking beyond "common sense" to figure out what we really need to do. The issue of the day in New York is social promotion.
First, what is "social promotion"? Well, it is the practice of promoting students to the next grade, even though they have not "passed" the last grade. "Retention" is the policy of holding back kids who did not pass a grade to repeat the grade again. There's a lot of intuitive appeal to retention policies. A commenter going by the name insiderknowledge on Gotham Schools -- my favorite education blog -- addresses most of the common objections to social promotion.
What message is being sent to failing students who are promoted to the next grade? That we care more about your self esteem then your education? Why even bother with the diploma at the end of 12th grade if one has to do almost nothing to earn it? Students earn grades and those that EARN passing grades should get promoted those that don’t shouldn’t plain and simple. This country started its decline in educational performance when it got into the self esteem management business. Failing is the natural way that we learn. When we fail we learn what not to do or what to do that will make us successful.. i say that those who eventually drop out as being kids with very low character. And that’s what this nation has become. A nation of low character quitters who toss in the towel when they are not instantly gratified whether they deserve it or not. If we recognize after a certain level that a student simply cannot meet the criteria academically to pass to the next level we should be steering them into vocational training so that they have a career to look forward to. That’s the real reason they drop out.. Not everyone is cut out for academia but we have this silly notion that everyone has to go to college to get a liberal arts degree.
Not to pick on insiderknowledge, but this is a classic "common sense" kind of response. Social promotion is not a high school issue as much as it is elementary and junior high school issue. I have no reason to believe that insiderknowledge favors a vocational track for 4th gaders, but s/he has clearly conflated potentially wrong-headed expectations about universal college attendance with the issue of social promotion. On the substance of this issue, s/he worries about the "message being sent," rather than what actually happens to children.
The other side of this debate take quite a different tone. I do not know of anyone who likes the idea of social promotion -- after all, it is rather counter intuitive. However, actual research has clearly shown that retention does not work. Kids who are held back drop out in much higher numbers than those who are not. Kids who are held back twice are overwhelmingly likely to drop out before graduation. The sense I have gotten from the research is that if they are not held back, they are less likely to drop out. (That is, this is not just a self-evident find of "kids who do poorly in school drop out more"), and holding them back actually increases their chances of dropping out above and beyond what doing poorly in school might predict. There is other research out there, too, about other negative impacts from being held back, thinks like violence, teen pregnancy, drug use, etc. -- though the causal link is less clear in those cases. In fact, it is virtually impossible to find anyone who has actually researched student outcomes and how this stuff actually works who is against social promotion policies.
Pedagogically, I believe the only question should be "Does repeating grades help students more than the dangers caused by holding them back." If you believe that it does, then you have must believe that repetition of the same material, taught in the same way, at the same pace is going to make a difference. Richard Elmore calls this the "more, louder" approacher. When I teach and my student does not understand something, I try to find another way to explain it. I believe that if the long schooling endeavor is to worth anything to students, it is in part based upon repeating ideas in different ways, manners, contexts and usages. To put this more plainly, if it didn't work the first time, why do you think that it is going to work the second time?
(Of course, insiderknowledge makes an important point: what is the value of a high school diploma if we do not know what kind of mastery it might indicate? This gets to a broader issue, I think. That is, what do our external signal of educational attainment (i.e. grades, transcripts, courses, diplomas) actually indicate? In the future I will address this a bit more, but for now suffice it it say that social promotion is the least of our problems in this area.)
So, the research is clear. Retention does not work for students, even if it does "send a signal." Social promotion helps kids -- and not just their self-esteem. Social promotion contributes to kids staying in school longer. It might means that some kids graduate with less mastery that the rest, but it seems that they graduate with more mastery than they would have had had they they dropped out years earlier.
You see, the false debate is one that assumes that the alternative to social promotion is a retention policy that assures the repetition of a grade leads to mastery of the material that enables students to complete the rest of their education just like the other kids. That is simply not the case. Those against social promotion are in favor of fantasy, and do not pay enough attention to reality to even be aware of it. The reality is that we do not have sufficient special programs to grade repeaters to help them differently the second time.
So, which approach to such issues should we take? Should we go with our gut? Or should be look at the research and realities of the programs on the ground? Surely it is easier to go with our guts, but don't our children deserve a more thoughtful approach?