Across Canada, flunking has also become increasingly rare," education reporter Jill Mahoney writes in today's Globe in her article Why children no longer flunk in school"
"Instead, students who do not meet minimum grade standards usually move ahead with their peers - a practice known as social promotion, while also receiving remedial help.
"Failing students really sends some very damning and negative messages which impacts on their entire lives," says Lori Tighe, director of assessment and instructional support services at the Winnipeg School Division.
Indeed, studies suggest retaining youngsters carries long-term consequences: it damages children's self-esteem, doesn't improve their marks and increases drop-out rates.
A 2001 study of American sixth graders found they viewed failing a grade as the most stressful life event, ahead of losing a parent or going blind.
But among teachers, there is dissent about the merits of social promotion, with some seeing the practice as ineffective in addressing students' gaps in learning.
"I've always felt that you're not really doing a child a service if you're putting him through," said Patrick Mascoe, a Grade 6 teacher in Ottawa who himself failed Grade 1 after frequent absences due to his asthma.
"If our goal as teachers is to make sure that kids develop self-discipline and are always trying to achieve to do their best, I think it just has an adverse affect on them because it teaches them that: 'You know what, I can get by without doing my best'."
What do you think? Is "social promotion" a good idea or political correctness gone awry?
We are pleased that Ms. Mahoney was online earlier today to take questions on her story and on the issues it raised.
Your questions and Ms. Mahoney's answers appear at the bottom of this page.
Ms. Mahoney is an education reporter at The Globe and Mail, focusing on pre-kindergarten to Grade 12.
She has been a writer at the paper for 10 years and was previously the social trends reporter and Edmonton correspondent.
While working in Alberta, she co-won a National Newspaper Award with two colleagues for their feature writing on the Pine Lake tornado, which hit a campground east of Red Deer in the summer of 2000.
Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.
Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Welcome, Jill, and thanks for taking questions today on your provocative article in Saturday's Globe about social promotion and why schools no longer flunk kids - except in rare cases.
I want to start today's discussion by broadening the debate and asking what I'll admit in advance is an old fogey's question. I do realize things have changed a lot since I completed Grade 4 in late 1950s.
However, my son, who is completing Grade 4 this month, has never been told by his teacher and his school this year that he has given a single "wrong" answer. He gives "right" answers or "correct" answers. However, if he gets something wrong, it's marked instead as an "LO" (which stands for "learning opportunity").
I'm personally concerned that this, and social promotion, and the other Globe story on Saturday about how there is no such thing any more in schools as a "late" assignment - even if the due date is missed - indicates a system that is over-protective of the child's feelings at the expense of helping to teach him or her how the real world operates.
What do the experts you have interviewed feel about the possible danger of overprotecting children in this way?
Jill Mahoney: Thanks, Jim. I'm happy to be here.
I think you're not alone in being concerned about the issue. But among education experts there isn't the same level of worry.
The modern approach - including social promotion, no "wrong" answers and often an unwillingness to dock marks - is usually seen as focusing on the positive in an attempt to get children more involved in learning while, in many cases, boosting their self-esteem.
John C., Sarnia, Ont.: Hi, Jill. Thanks for taking my comment/question. I am an elementary school teacher and have taught for 26 years.
While I understand the social/psychological implications of withholding a child, I have concerns with losing that option if it is necessary.
During my career, I have retained a child once, so it is not something that I would entertain lightly. It was a split-class situation so the child was able to remain with her peers who were in the grade below her. It made it a little easier.
I have had children refuse to do their assignments, or much work at all for that matter, who have told me and their parents that they don't have to because they will pass anyway and that they will be with their friends. So, it doesn't matter.
The parents throw up their hands. I can't parent children for the parents. It is a very real problem.
We used to be allowed to "transfer" a student to the next grade, rather than "promote." But that option has been removed, as it was deemed a "punishment" of the student. I thought of it as a method of communication to all involved that the child had not met curriculum requirements.
I can support social promotion if governments put the funding into providing those children with adequate supports in the classroom. Providing individualized programs is all well and good, but within the context of a multi-level classroom with 26+ students, ideas do not match reality. A socially promoted child may fall even farther behind in the next grade without appropriate supports.
[Do the experts think]such adequate supports are a necessity when a child is socially promoted?
Jill Mahoney: You raise several key issues. While social promotion has largely become the norm for elementary and middle schools, I do not know of any boards that forbid holding back a child.
However, children's attitudes toward not doing work are unfortunate, and represent a negative side effect of the practice.
As you point out, passing children who do not meet minimum guidelines increases the need for extra supports, which most everyone agrees are necessary to ensure that such children learn. But, of course, that costs money, which is at the crux of the matter in today's cash-strapped school system.
Henry Allen, Toronto: What is the impact of social promotion on successful students?
We are repeatedly told about over-crowded classrooms and over-burdened teachers. If this is true, that means teachers are either ignoring socially promoted students or not giving sufficient attention to successful students. If socially promoted students are ignored, these students may become a distraction. If teachers give socially promoted students the time and attention their special needs require, successful students are not getting the instruction they require to prepare optimally for advancement opportunities.
Either way, those who are successful are being held back by the lowest common denominators in the classroom.
Jill Mahoney: This is an interesting question. The educators I spoke with emphasized that teachers today already teach to a range of students, given the incredible array of abilities present in most classrooms, including special needs students, English-as-a-second-language students, gifted students, etc. As a result, the experts say most of them are also able to accommodate students who haven't mastered the previous grade level.
Under what is known as differentiated instruction, they teach one concept - say multiplication - but provide different tasks suited to students' abilities.
Nathan: Do you [and the experts you interviewed]think that academic or social skills are the most important things learned in the first few grades of school?
Jill Mahoney: Most experts agree that social skills and literacy are the key priorities for the early grades.
In kindergarten, teachers introduce students to basic concepts, including books, while also teaching them to interact with their peers.
In the next couple of grades, the focus is generally on reading and numeracy while also sparking children's interests in different subject areas.
Penny Cooper: This has been an ongoing concern of mine for many years now, so thank you doing this conversation.
If studies suggest that retaining failing children has long-term consequences, what do these same studies show about advancing failing children?
Do all schools have the resources to give the remedial help when needed? My concern is that we are advancing children without actually giving them the education and tools needed to succeed in the real world where employers are not afraid to give "failing grades."
Jill Mahoney: Your question hits at what is for many the heart of this issue.
I have heard concerns that struggling children who are promoted to the next grade do not always get enough remedial help, especially since education budgets tend to be stretched.
The research in this area concludes that students who are socially promoted have better self-esteem and are less likely to drop out of school than those who fail.
However, I haven't found any long-term studies on the effects of social promotion - such as how such students fare after high school. It would be a worthy area to examine.
Jason Parker, Barrie, Ont.: I notice an increased advertising push on radio, TV and in print for pay-for-use [tutoring]services promoting remedial and/or advanced assistance with learning activities.
Is the policy of not holding a student back despite a lack of understanding of required concepts creating a tiered education system in which parents with means will be able to provide better education at the public and high school level by complementing a students' learning activities with professional aid?
Does this not promote a society in which "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" not only in terms of materialistic wealth, but also in regards to education and the opportunities a solid education brings?
Jill Mahoney: I think you're right in pointing out that this practice raises questions about access to education.
If students aren't getting the extra help they need at school, tutoring and other assistance costs money, and it would follow that students from wealthier families have better chances to catch up than their less well-off peers.
Alan Slavin, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Trent University, Peterborough, Ont.: I have no problem with social promotion at the K-8 level, but I am seeing serious consequences from its application at the high school level.
I am especially concerned about the [Ontario]Ministry's policy of not allowing teachers to deduct marks for late assignments, especially in the upper years, so as to increase the percentage of students that pass.
The stress on passing rather than quality in Ontario high schools that John Lorinc discussed in his Saturday Globe article Deadline? What Deadline? is having a measurable impact far beyond high school.
In its attempt to raise the percentage of students who graduate, the Ministry of Education has initiated a culture of "passing with least effort" that students are carrying into university.
This past year, an instructor in classics at Trent University found that one-third of her students did not hand in assignments - a dramatic increase from when she last taught the course five years ago.
Four of the lowest five grades in 25 years in the first test in my introductory physics course have occurred in the last five years, and more students are coming to me after they fail, to ask how they can raise their grades.
I understand the need for special allowances to increase the percentage of at-risk students who pass at the Grade 9-10 level, but perhaps the ministry can return some real-world accountability at the Grade 12 level?
Coupled with this problem is a reliance on rote memorization/regurgitation, rather than understanding and analysis, caused by the Harris curriculum which is so content-heavy and advanced at the elementary grades that students either can't understand the material or don't have the time to absorb it.
The double whammy of lack of analytical ability and lack of accountability has seriously damaged the ability of Ontario students to perform well at university.
Jill Mahoney: Thank you for your posting. Critics who voice concern about today's standards in high school (as well as elementary and middle school) often wonder what happens when students graduate, and you have outlined some telling examples.
Pierre Duguay, Robertville, N.B.: Hi, Jill. After reading your article in the Globe on Saturday, I copied it and sent it to school with my son.
My son is seven years old and was born in September and had a large task ahead of him this year as his readings skills needed a lot of attention. After starting behind all of his class, he finally broke through around Xmas and began reading on his own. So far, he is doing fine.
But even after basically learning how to read this year, the school wants to keep him in Grade 2 for a second year. The reason is that all the time he spent learning to read made him drag behind the rest of the class and he is missing a lot of tools to enter Grade 3.
We have paid a tutor all year and we will continue through the summer and into next year as long as it takes. Even with this, the school still demands he stays behind.
We don't know what to do. What would the experts suggest?
Jill Mahoney: Thanks for sharing your situation.
Generally, as I wrote in my article, experts believe that promoting struggling elementary students ahead a grade is more beneficial than holding them back.
My only advice would be to read more about the issue and talk to your child's teacher and principal. Good luck.
Rick Drysdale: Have you ever wondered why employers have raised the minimum educational requirement for jobs? It is a form of self-defence that we use. If I cannot be guaranteed that a high school graduate can do basic math or read, then I will ask for someone with post-secondary education. Maybe the uneducated will have been weeded out by that system.
Kids who have graduated without the basic knowledge that is expected from a high school graduate will be among society's losers. I hate to really call them losers but that is what they become when the teachers don't do the job they have been hired to do. They get stuck in the dead-end jobs. They are denied promotions.
Often, they really don't know why because they believe the nonsense that they have been fed. They are cheated by the system which doesn't do the job they have been hired to do. What do the experts say about that?
Jill Mahoney: You present an interesting perspective. The people I spoke to believe that students who are socially promoted are more likely to stay in school, which, they argue, is more beneficial and gives them continuing opportunities to learn and catch up.
Obviously, as this chat has demonstrated, not everyone agrees!
T.C.: What impact does social promotion have on the way educators do their job?
I believe that this can only have a negative impact. Social promotion gives the perfect opportunity for an educator to do the bare minimum because the children aren't really expected to achieve. In turn, children can spend the first number of years sliding through and then, as in the case of Ontario, suddenly are faced with standardized testing. The educator is then expected to bring socially promoted children up to standard and the children are expected to achieve the standard.
I think this is unfair to the educator and to the child. Do the experts agree?
Jill Mahoney: I think it's true that standardized testing is sometimes stressful for both teachers and students, but I don't believe that teachers willfully let students slide through during their first years of school.
In my experience, teachers are generally very dedicated and do their best to help children learn.
If anything, social promotion makes teachers' jobs harder because they have a wider range of abilities to consider when planning lessons.
Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Jill, thanks very much for joining us today. I'm sure our readers appreciated your thoughtful answers and analyis. Any last thoughts?
Jill Mahoney: Thanks for the questions everyone.
This is a controversial, thought-provoking issue that attracts a lot of pointed comments!
Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: To our readers: Thanks for your strong interest in this issue. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of the dozens of questions you submitted during this one-hour discussion.