Are charter schools succeeding because they hold students back?

Social promotion — the practice of allowing children to move on to the next grade level with their age-group, even if they’ve performed poorly — is one of those contentious issues in education that, depending on whom you ask, you can get an earful about why it’s either critical to long-term student success or destroying public education. Over at Gotham Schools, Kim Gittleson has compiled an interesting analysis of charter schools that raises the possibility that holding students back may be one key to their students’ relatively high achievement.

(photo courtesy of Ajari)

Her study corrects a study by the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, which found that charter schools have high rates of attrition possibly because low-achieving students are being expelled or pushed out. Gittleson instead found that the charter schools studied (just a handful out of the many in NYC) appear to be holding back their lowest performers and having them repeat a grade, not getting rid of them.

If retention is partly behind the magic at some charter schools, I’m left wondering what happened to Mayor Bloomberg’s policy to end social promotion in all New York City schools a few years back? Are charter schools using stricter standards than the city policy, or is it really retention that’s making a difference?

In other cities, including Chicago, the verdict on ending social promotion has been mixed. The big argument against the policy is that students who fail a grade and are retained are more likely to drop out later on.

This could become an important issue as states adopt the common core curriculum standards: stricter standards, and the stricter tests that are likely to accompany them, will likely mean more students will struggle to pass. If charter schools are indeed doing better because of their retention policies, perhaps they can offer an answer to the question of how other schools should deal with stragglers – hold them back, or pass them on?

–Sarah Garland