What are we to do about high school kids who fail courses in grades nine and  ten and don’t seem to care?  We are being told if a student doesn’t earn 16 credits by the time he is 16 years old, there is an excellent chance the student will drop out of school and not graduate. In the province of Ontario where I teach, high school students are expected to earn eight credits in grade nine and another eight credits in grade 10 for a total of 16 credits.

There’s so much pressure on teachers to do what it takes to get these kids to pass courses.  At the end of the semester when teachers are writing report cards, sometimes teachers are called down to the office and told strongly encouraged by the administration to change a failing mark to a passing mark. The word rigor seems to have no place in these conversations.  Small wonder teachers are disillusioned and discouraged.

High school teachers are always complaining about the social promotion that goes on in the elementary schools where students who fail subjects in a grade still get to go (are socially promoted) to the next grade even though they’ve  failed .  These students come to grade 9 with huge gaps in their knowledge and skill sets. These gaps set students up for failure. I think socially promoting students is morally wrong. We’re not doing students any favors by passing them now when they haven’t mastered course content  just to fail them later because the gaps in their knowledge prevent them from mastering the next grade’s content.  That’s not being respectful of our students.

I know, I know there’s a huge debate about social promotion, about a kid’s self-esteem etc. I actually haven’t seen any studies on the topic of social promotion. I can only tell you what I know from my own personal professional experience. Maybe this summer I’ll search the literature to see what research says and share my findings here.

I teach students who have been socially promoted, and I see many of these students continue to fail and be at-risk academically in grades nine and ten. They often do not earn 16 credits by the time they are 16. Academically at-risk students who continually fail courses are kicked out of regular high school when they reach 18 (legally they have to stay in school until 18) and sent to alternative schools to continue their education.  Some of my students have come back to visit me and have told me that the alternative schools didn’t work for them either. Some students admit it’s their fault they didn’t succeed in high school, but some students blame the school system and certain teachers for their lack of success. They may have a point, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

I’ve been meaning to read Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors for some time now and since school is out for the summer, I can.  I’m enjoying it immensely as well as learning a lot about the challenges of school reform. Russo’s  book is about school reform- a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately given my frustrations with 16 by 16. Specifically, Russo’s book is the story about the challenges Green Dot and its founder Steve Barr encounter while trying to reform Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles. Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard about the Green Dot story.  It must have been on the news and in the papers.  I don’t know how I missed it, but I did.  I’m certainly going online  to see what I can find to fill in my gaps about Green Dot and Barr.

While reading Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, I came across this passage that really spoke to me.

Letting a kid pass a class in which he’d barely learned anything, in the hopes that he’s catch up later and benefit from having moved along, or flunking a kid and making him dig in at least a bit, with the knowledge that such a might not happen? It was a difficult call- and an age-old question. Teachers-and schools-have been passing kids along for decades.( Russo, p. 93).

I naively thought this problem of passing kids along was a problem just in Ontario, Canada. I hadn’t realized that teachers in other jurisdictions are having to make the same difficult calls about passing or not passing academically at-risk students. What happens in schools in other countries like Japan, France, Germany, China, Scotland?  What do they do with kids who really don’t pass? I’d like to know.

photo thanks to dullhunk

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6 Responses to “Passing kids along who fail is being disrespectful of them”

  1. Teresa on July 3rd, 2011 8:36 pm

    I used to work in a low-income area school district in Colorado that, among other things, socially promoted from Kinder forward, thinking that providing interventions along the way would make a difference. A friend of mine had her job threatened by district administration for even bringing up having a child repeat the first grade. They touted research left and right, tho there was no way this child would be successful in the 2nd grade–he had NONE of the skills even developing yet.

    I taught 5th grade (10-11 years old) and in my first year of teaching, I had students who could not read at a FIRST grade level (ages 6-7). These kids had been passed along from teacher to teacher with “interventions” being given every year in a feeble attempt to catch them up. That first year, we went from a co-teaching inclusive model, to a co-teaching leveled model, to a fully leveled model with pull outs for those kids below the lowest level…all this within the first three months of school. The kids never had a chance. Neither did we as teachers. Once we got the hang of what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it, the administration changed it up, changed the kids, changed both what and HOW we were allowed to teach it. And at the end of the year, most kids had moved a tiny bit forward, and some had not improved at all. And yet…they were all allowed to go to the 6th grade and I wasn’t allowed to talk to parents about tutoring options at all.

    Now, this same district has implemented a program that will not allow students who are below grade level in literacy to be promoted to the next grade level in ANY AREA in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades. So even if the kid is gifted in math (and they do exist), but below grade level in reading, he or she will not be allowed to move forward in any other subject. He or she will have to endure the SAME content, taught the SAME way, by the SAME teacher. This isn’t a viable solution EITHER. I can see holding a child back if he or she is not proficient in ANY area, but to do THIS to a child is reprehensible.

    And somehow also, the superintendent is also attempting to mandate “parental involvement.” Please…that should be a GIVEN. If parents participated to start with, these kids wouldn’t be as behind as they are to start with. I’m not saying that blame is only on the part of the parents here, but it IS a valid point that parental involvement and encouragement of concepts learned in school while the child is at home helps a lot.

    I feel horrible for these kids who fall through the cracks. They develop this warped sense of self that tells them they are inadequate and may as well not do anything because they’ll never amount to anything worthwhile anyway. And it kills me…because I know that they are capable of much more. So yeah…even in the great US of A this crap happens.

  2. Pam Darden on July 4th, 2011 2:27 am

    I teach high school. and , sad to say, these kids are reading at a third grade level in high school, so, obviously, social promotion is not the answer. From my experience, the students know if a school won’t fail them, so, if they are inclined to not want to do the work, they won’t and they will still be promoted. They know this. Education seems to swing between extremes, with little room for common sense.
    It seems that the people developing educational policies have very little, if any, classroom experience. Even administrators with classroom experience seem to “forget” or develop an idealized perspective of classroom life.
    I have to agree with Elona. Social promotion is the easy way out for everyone. The student keeps getting pushed through without having to earn it and everyone gets to pat themselves on the back saying they tried their best. Whatever happened to working for ehat you get and earning self-esteem? Students cannot develop self-esteem without working for it.

  3. Elona Hartjes on July 4th, 2011 7:58 pm

    Thanks for sharing your insights. One of our department heads did not want students to be passed on and made a big fuss but to no avail. She sought a position in another school because she just couldn’t take it.

  4. Elona Hartjes on July 4th, 2011 8:07 pm

    I hear your frustration. I sometimes think that some people come up with new policies because it helps them go up the career ladder. Parental involvement? Yes please. I think we need to teach some parents how to be involved in their kids education. Remember parents transfer their values about school to their kids. If a parent had a poor experience when they went to school they might not support teachers. I’m sure some parents are afraid of school and don’t want to be involved talking to teachers or school admin.

    I think more attention should be paid to teachers personal professional knowledge. Teachers are in the trenches after all.

  5. Teresa on February 2nd, 2012 10:25 am


    You begin your article by saying that you run across kids in grade 9 and 10 who don’t care. Have you ever asked them why they don’t care. In your own article you talk about an educational system that is “passing kids along” for social reasons. You talk about kids in high school who can only read at a grade one or three level but yet you wonder why they’ve given up? It’s the administrators and teachers job to make sure that kids are learning and that they are happy and engaged. Schools have tons of resources at their disposal-tons and they have access to the higher ups, like government. Parents don’t have access like you. We’re not in the classroom. You should not be just passing kids along from grade to grade if there’s a problem and you shouldn’t be doing that just because you don’t know the solution. Parents trust you when they drop their child off at your door everyday and if you are failing their children that’s so wrong. That means that school is basically a sham and only works for some students. That’s so wrong. So much money goes into education and basically your saying is that a lot of that money is being wasted and certain students are being wasted in the system. Basically those students are not caring because a school system that “just passes” kids along for social reasons obviously doesn’t care about them or their needs. I’m not saying that its the teachers job to fix the system but you need to be bringing this problem to parents, the board and demanding that it be fixed. You know the current system is failing certain students so fix it or are you guys not smart enough. Ironically, by passing kids along and not giving them what they need to succeed you are doing the very same thing your grade 9 and 10 students are doing-NOT CARING!

  6. mb on March 1st, 2012 12:40 pm

    How bout holding students accountable in elementary school? How about allowing students to fail when they choose not to do their work or when they don’t know the material? Do you want a Doctor that doesn’t know how to read? When and why did we lower the bar so low that there is no effort needed on the part of the student. People learn more from their failures than their successes. Bring back competition, bring back challenges, bring back rewards for work well done and above all…bring back real consequences for poor behaviour and attitudes.

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