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

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Ticked-off Taxpayer

Ms Garland– Before you assume the charter schools actually hold onto those “retained” students, here is the same comment I left on the Gotham Schools site –

Kim — two things. Last fall I visited a middle school where the principal said that a number of his students come from nearby charter schools from which they had been “counseled out.

Recently I met up with friends who are familiar with middle school admissions. They said that, for a number of charter schools, when the administration wants to get rid of students it tells them they have passed promotion criteria for the city, but not for that particular school. That leaves the students with the choice of repeating the grade in the charter school, or moving on with their cohort in a regular public school.

Hope this helps as you continue to fill out the picture of this very important story of charter schools’ “vanishing students,” and the terrible burden this phenomenon puts on the rest of the school system.

[...] Other findings shed more light on some emerging questions: attrition rates aren’t higher at KIPP schools, meaning students don’t appear to be leaving KIPP more often, or, as some critics have suggested of charters in general, don’t appear to be pushed out if they aren’t successful. At the same time, KIPP students tend to be held back to repeat a grade more often than students at regular schools, an issue I blogged about last week. [...]

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