Columns 2003

Demand that children learn before being passed

When I went to school, the rule was simple. Pass your courses and you passed to the next grade at the end of the school year. Fail and you were held back until you did. 

My parents, and all the parents I knew, thought this was just fine. They felt we were in school to learn and if we didn’t learn, why would we be sent to the next grade.

Now I will be the first to admit that the phrase used for this system – “getting left back” – is probably not the kindest phrase in the world. But we lived in a fairly basic and utilitarian world and this phrase was clear and concise in describing the fate of any child who could not pass the finals to move on to the next grade.

My parents never had a child left back.  But I know many parents who did. Not one of them was worried that this would in any way hinder their children’s social skills. In fact, as far as I could tell, they were completely unconcerned about their children’s social life.  That wasn’t why they were sending their children to school.

I can’t remember my parents ever being worried about my social skills beyond teaching me manners and respect. I had friends. I played with them when my homework was done. That was about as good a social life as they figured I needed. And if I did badly in school because I didn’t study or do my homework, they quickly decided I didn’t need a social life at all.

In a recent article in the Daily News about the failure rate of Alaska students on the new tests they have to pass to get a high school diploma, I found this statement.

“Many rural districts are reorganizing classrooms, sorting students by ability level instead of age. This philosophy was first pioneered by the award-winning Chugach School District eight years ago.  The theory is students will learn more if they’re working with others of the same ability, instead of getting frustrated and falling farther behind.”

With all due respect to the Chugach School District, you did not pioneer this philosophy.  In fact, back in the fifties, it wasn’t even considered a philosophy. It was considered just common sense.

I’ve watched students who were passed along so they wouldn’t feel humiliated by being in class with younger students. They were just as humiliated when they were removed from their classroom every day to go to the special ed room. How long do you think it was before the rest of the class figured out what special ed meant?

I deal with kids in the juvenile justice system who are always being ordered to stay in school as a condition of probation.  Many of them are functionally illiterate but have been passed along anyway. Instead of school being a place of fun and learning, they view it as a place of frustration and anger.  It’s not surprising that it’s often one of the first conditions of probation they violate.

I think the reason Chugach is doing so well is because they have gone back and rediscovered something that we used to know.  A kid goes to school, first and foremost, to be educated. If that’s not happening, not much else matters. And if the child doesn’t get it the first time it’s taught, then it should be re-taught till the child does get it or someone decides this is the limits of that child’s ability.

To keep passing kids because we don’t want them to feel badly about themselves is utter foolishness.  Because you have never seen a kid really feeling badly about himself till you’ve seen a high school senior struggling to comprehend a third grade children’s story. They know they can’t do what most of their peers take for granted. 

For many functionally illiterate adults, it becomes the dirty little secret they hide from the world for the rest of their lives. And they never do stop feeling badly about themselves.