En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Sun
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Hold Back This Plan

Tonight,
the school system’s Panel on Education Policy, PEP, will vote on whether to add
an eighth-grade holdover policy to current retention programs in third, fifth,
and seventh grades. A holdover policy forces students to repeat a grade if they
don’t achieve a defined benchmark such as a cut-off score on a standardized
reading or math tests. A retention program — which includes summer school,
tutoring, and assigned work at home for students — is designed to help
students, who have been held back due to their poor academic performance,
improve in school.

While the
Department of Education indicates it is currently developing a improvement plan
for the middle schools, it will not be ready in time for the vote.

Wouldn’t
it make more sense to postpone the PEP vote until the improvement plan has been
developed and implemented? Otherwise, holding more students back without
offering such a plan is punishing eighth-graders for the instructional failures
of their middle school years.

In 2004,
when Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein introduced their initial retention
effort, a third-grade holdover policy, they dismissed a century of research
demonstrating that keeping students back does not improve their performance.

In his
2008 State of the City speech, Mr. Bloomberg argued that students in the
third-, fifth-, and seventh-grade programs "rose to the challenge."
But the mayor cited no evidence for this claim; indeed, no independent evidence
exists. The school system contracted a national evaluation firm in 2004 to
assess the effectiveness of its retention efforts, but findings are yet to be
issued. Therefore this regime’s latest effort to punish students before
reforming their schools is based on no independent evidence that its previous
retention programs have been successful.

There is,
however, some powerful evidence that the scale of poor performance in the
city’s middle schools is reaching crisis proportions. The recent report, Our
Children Can’t Wait, published by the NYC Coalition for Education Justice,** demonstrates that New York City’s
eighth-grade reading and math scores on our national assessment program have
not improved between 2003 and 2007. Worse, the racial achievement gap in
reading among eighth-grade students has not closed during the Children First
years; almost 70% of black and latino eighth-graders are not reading at the New York State standard. According to the
Department’s own research, more than 60% of these students are likely to drop
out in high school.

Moreover,
holding back poorly performing eighth-graders could have an unintended
consequence; it could actually reduce the high school dropout rate by
increasing the number of eighth-graders who never even enter high school. We
don’t know how many eighth-graders don’t continue their education because the
Department of Education doesn’t calculate a middle school dropout rate. But
that rate may be considerable, and this new retention program may well increase
it.

This
regime did not create the middle school crisis, though. Across the country,
middle schools have been urban school systems’ most damaging stage of failure. New York City’s middle
schools have long denied hundreds of thousands of students an effective high
school education, and a shot at college.

One
example: CEJ’s 2007 report, New York
City’s Middle-Grade Schools: Platforms for Success or
Pathways to Failure? found that the city’s poorly performing middle schools
failed to offer critical gate-keeping courses in math and science. While a
small number of middle schools in New York, with the support of the Office of
Middle Grade Initiatives, are experimenting with offering Regents courses,
thousands of middle school graduates continue to enter high school already
behind in the academic coursework necessary for effective matriculation and
graduation.

This new
retention policy will not improve the skills of these poorly performing
eighth-graders, or keep them from dropping out of high school. The chancellor
estimates that some 18,000 eighth-graders currently are vulnerable to the
proposed retention policy. Retaining and attempting to remediate those 18,000
students will not change pervasive and inadequate instructional practice in our
system’s middle schools. Another grade-level retention policy will not improve
teacher and principal quality, or provide the range of personal supports that
vulnerable middle school students need.

The scale
of systemic reform that is necessary recently has been defined by the City
Council’s Middle School Task Force report, and by CEJ’s Middle Grade Action
Plan. Both reports advocate more time for learning, so that students get the
rigorous courses and engaging and challenging activities they need. Both
reports call for improving instructional quality, so that students get the
experienced and qualified teachers and principals they need. Both reports call
for more counseling, college advising, and academic interventions, so that
students get the supports and advice they need.

If the
Department of Education is indeed developing a plan to improve the city’s
middle schools, then why rush to implement a retention policy, especially one
that is not backed up by research? The Department should postpone the PEP’s
vote on the eighth-grade retention program until the new reform plan has been
introduced and implemented. Better yet, why not abandon eighth-grade retention
and instead concentrate on reforming education in the city’s middle schools?

*Make the Road New York is a founding and active member.