February 28, 2013

TEACHERS IN THE D.C. public school system are unable to hold back students in most elementary and middle school grades — even when it is clear that students haven’t mastered the skills of the requisite grades, and even when there is complete agreement from school principals. Unless parents request retention, students generally advance to the next grade. This is the result of a provision in the D.C. Municipal Regulations that is clearly overdue for examination.

“We have an inexplicable municipal regulation that forces social promotion,” said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who wants to focus attention on the long-standing rule that permits schools to flunk students only in grades 3, 5 and 8. In addition, school policy permits a student to be retained only once in elementary school and once in middle school. Mr. Catania, who has been visiting public schools as part of his duties as the head of the council’s new education committee, said a common complaint from teachers and administrators centers on the difficulties involved in having — and trying to reach — so many children in one class who are on so many different levels.

He pointed to statistics compiled by his committee that show retentions are in the low single and double digits in elementary and middle school but dramatically higher in ninth grade (911, for example, in the 2011-12 school year), when, for the first time, students must show competence to advance. “How sensible, not to mention fair,” he asked, “is it to advance these kids who aren’t ready to go forward?”

Mr. Catania said he is likely to introduce legislation to repeal the rule but, rather than dictating policy to school officials, he wants to start a discussion. No question, this is a complicated issue. Studies demonstrate that retention can lead to low self-esteem, students getting in trouble and being at higher risk of dropping out. Flunking more children without providing additional remediation and other support would be counterproductive.

So Mr. Catania is right to want to look at states that have legislated the end of social promotion as well as charter schools in the District that have adopted stringent standards that must be met before students graduate. “What we’ve done is taken any manner of discretion away from the school system,” Mr. Catania told The Post’s Emma Brown. He wants to give teachers and principals more flexibility to do what they think is in a child’s best interest.