As the education reform bills move forward, I expect third-grade retention to remain a hot topic.
The issue of mandatory retention versus social promotion reminds of the Battle of the Wits scene from The Princess Bride where Vizzini is trying to decide which cup holds the poison.
Children not reading at grade level by third grade may fall further and further behind their peers. So we clearly cannot choose a social promotion policy.
Children held back may fall behind in other subject areas. So we clearly cannot choose a mandatory retention policy.
More children learn to read when retention provides an incentive for students, parents, and teachers to take responsibility for ensuring that children can read by the end of third grade. So we clearly cannot choose a social promotion policy.
Children held back may be more likely to drop out of school later. So we clearly cannot choose a mandatory retention policy. (For actual arguments in favor of mandatory retention, see Matthew Ladner here and here; for actual arguments against mandatory retention, see Scott McLeod here and here.)
As it happens, Vizzini is, in fact, choosing between two poisoned cups. Which, is a bit what this argument feels like to me. Yes, we can try to persuade ourselves about the best choice between a policy of social promotion or a policy of mandatory retention. But why not ask instead, what exactly is preventing school districts, schools, and teachers from discovering, adopting, and implementing effective early reading instruction methods, materials, and programs right now?
It’s hard to imagine having this conversation in the Montessori community where effective early reading instruction, individualized work plans, multi-age classrooms, and educational philosophy would make a mandatory retention policy unnecessary and undesirable. Why not work towards creating a public education system in Iowa that doesn’t require more coercion to ensure that effective reading instruction happens?