Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Too Old to Fail Part 1: Why do schools promote students who shouldn’t be promoted?

This is part one in a two-part series about social promotion in American schools. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a fundamental flaw in the American educational system. Every year, many students are moved on to the next grade through a system of formal policies and informal pressures. In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, when many school districts have formally banned failing grades, students will enter into the next school year at drastically different levels. Part one will discuss the origins and causes of this system. The second part will consider more recent history and alternatives.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, students, teachers, and families have gone through one of the toughest academic years ever. Many students struggled to keep up with course loads, while families struggled to keep their kids focused on Zoom-school while managing their own jobs and dealing with changing expectations about when and how schools would reopen. As a result, many schools and districts formally banned holding students back to repeat a grade. While promoting all students to the next grade has been an explicit expectation for many students and teachers this year, it has actually been the de facto norm in many American schools for decades. Every year, students are moved on to the next grade not because their work has merited progress but simply because they have aged another year. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this problem.

When this happens officially, it is known as social promotion: a student has failed a course, but they are passed on to the next grade anyway to stay with their age peers. When it is done explicitly but covertly, it looks like administrators actively changing students’ grades to make sure they have the credits to graduate, as was the case in Shelby County, Tennessee where a massive scandal was uncovered, revealing at least 1,000 altered grades and 53 students who graduated without actually earning diplomas.

In addition to this, though, lies a much more nefarious problem in schools. Many teachers face pressure — from administrators, parents, and societal norms — to pass students who have not demonstrated competence in a subject. This is often done with a wink and a nod; teachers are asked to find work for students to make up months after the topic was covered in class or to help students retake tests in the last few days of school. Or teachers are told to give students 50s instead of 0s for missing work. Numerous accounts from teachers exist on the internet — from comments on NPR and The Guardian articles to Reddit threads — detailing the pervasiveness of this kind of subtle social promotion. One teacher writes: “Four years ago, when I began my teacher training, a tenured teacher gave me some advice: ‘Just give them a D; it’ll be so much extra work for you to fail anyone.’” Another says, “I am strongly encouraged to inflate my grades every six weeks. It really pisses me off because I feel like they should fail since they didn’t put in the effort. You complain about kids missing 2–3 days but I’ve had kids miss weeks and then my bosses are telling me they should pass. It’s nuts.” And this has consequences: “As a teacher, I was complicit in grade inflation. Our low expectations hurt students we were supposed to help.”

During quarantine schooling, the pressure to pass failing students has increased. In May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, a principal in Brooklyn was caught on tape telling other administrators to pass students who were trying, even if they weren’t understanding the work. And under the current system, this makes perfect sense: the structure and support of in-person schooling combined with the trauma of a deadly quarantine — especially in cities like New York where thousands of people died in a two-month period — led to many otherwise engaged students falling behind.

Even as schools reopened, the pressure to pass continued to exist, whether by edict or the all-too-familiar informal pressure. In New York City and Los Angeles, for instance, schools were not allowed to fail students — although in some cases, students could receive summer school (with the expectation that if they even just attend, they would automatically move on to the next grade). Again, under the current system, this makes complete sense — if the expectation is that promotion is an expectation, no student should get left behind because of circumstances out of their control. But the impact of this decision will cause trouble for years to come: some students who engaged in learning this past year will enter into the next grade relatively prepared, while some students may go into the next grade without having received much formal education for over a year.

The cause of this phenomenon is clear, though: our school system is built around a model of “serving time.” It is expected that because students have been in a grade-level for 10 months, they ought to move onto the next grade for having served that time — regardless of actual learning having occurred. And that if a student serves thirteen years in the system, they ought to be awarded a diploma. For some students, this means being promoted rather than receiving more support and more time; for other students, this means having to spend a year in geometry when they might have been able to finish the curriculum in half the time. Either way, social promotion is to the great detriment of students’ long-term success, and promoting a student to the next grade only papers over a much deeper problem in exchange for nice-looking data.

This model has three distinct origins: the move toward graded schools in the 1800s; the move toward Carnegie units in the early 1900s; and the rise of standards-based education in the 1990s and the early 2000s. All of these relics of old education systems place unnecessary constraints on our ability to educate kids during unprecedented times, and they ought to be discarded to the dustbin of history.

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Prior to the 1800s, most formal education was reserved for the very wealthy and the ecclesiastical, mostly overseen on an individual basis by tutors or clergy. In the early- to mid-1800s, cities and towns across the United States began to create “common schools” for all children. Many of these schools were one-room schoolhouses with a single teacher. There was little standardization across schools, and a teacher might teach a large group of students who were at different places in their learning.

But as access to publicly funded schools increased, the demand for efficiency and uniformity across schools arose. More students needed to be taught cheaply, and leaders wanted regulated outcomes.

For most people in the 19th century, their experience with schools was a one-room building, where a teacher would direct students in different subjects at different ability levels. The one-room schoolhouse actually resembles what some Silicon Valley reformers call “personalized learning” — learning tailored to individual students’ needs. Education historians David Tyack and William Tobin write, “In the nongraded informal structure of instruction in the rural school, by contrast, students could progress more at their own pace, making ‘failure’ more obscure and less absolute, especially because there were many ways to learn and achieve in rural communities.” Students didn’t move from grade to grade; rather, they learned a topic at an appropriate pace, and when they were done with one topic, they simply moved on to the next.

But these schools were inefficient and less reliable and predictable; they were subject to the lay control of the individual teacher.

Boston became one of the first cities to transform education into an age-graded system — that is, separating students into classrooms with a single teacher with other students of a similar age. These reforms were led by George Emerson, cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and renowned educationist Horace Mann.

In addition to founding one of the most prominent girls’ schools in the United States in the early 1800s, Emerson helped to direct much of Boston’s education policy through the mid-1800s. In a book that he co-wrote with Alonzo Potter in 1843 called The School and the School Master: A Manual, Emerson employed the language of factories to describe the best way to organize schools:

“Division of labour seems to be quite as important in education as in the production of wealth; and we might with as much wisdom require that cotton should be picked, and carded, and spun, and woven, and bleached, and dressed, by one machine or by one person, as that children of different ages and attainments, as well as dispositions, should be successfully governed and instructed by one teacher. In the country, where schools can be maintained only be means of local districts, such an evil is, in a degree, unavoidable; but in cities and villages, it is gratuitous, and ought, therefore, to be avoided.”

Emerson lifted many of his ideas about schools — such as dividing students into grades — from the Prussians who, after getting decimated in the Napoleonic Wars, went on to create an education system whose efficiency became the ideal for many American reformers interested in developing schools for the masses that were orderly, cost-effective, and produced reliable and predictable outcomes.

Emerson took umbrage with the ungraded, one-room schoolhouse because it led to students being bored and insufficiently challenged. Teachers frequently chose to spend more time with the most successful students because those were the ones who would make them look the best. Emerson, dedicating a graded school in Somerville in 1848, said:

“What I desire to aim at in the plan is this, that, as far as it is possible, all who are at the same point in their studies and progress should be together, under the guidance of one teacher and they only should be present, for illustrations on the blackboard and all other direct instruction may be given to a whole school at once, as well as to a single scholar, and if any others than the class are present, they are an interruption to the teacher and are themselves interrupted by him.”

The odd thing, though, is that many of the claims he levies at the one-room schoolhouses could apply to graded schools today. In any given classroom, there are a wide range of abilities, and teachers in any particular middle school classroom, for instance, may have to attempt to engage students who are on a 4th grade reading level and a 10th grade reading level — a Herculean task, even under the best of circumstances.

By 1870, the graded school had spread from Boston to “every city of consequence.” Not everyone was pleased with the move to graded schools, however. Education historian Larry Cuban writes, “Too often we forget, that there were late-19th critics of age-graded schools. They saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing dropouts from elementary schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ungraded schools were popping up all across the country in response to the factory-like setting of graded schools.

Perhaps the most famous example of this was the “modern school” (Escuela Moderna) movement. The Modern Schools originated in Spain as the brainchild of Francisco Ferrer, an anarchist agitating against the power of the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Ferrer believed that the systems of rewards and punishments created by many grammar schools (like those found in the United States) incentivized students to game the system through deception. The regimented learning of standardized curricula snuffed out a child’s natural curiosity. Ferrer was eventually railroaded through a sham trial and executed on charges of leading a week of insurrection in Barcelona.

Following his death, however, the ideas of the Spanish anarchist quickly migrated to the United States. One of the most famous modern schools was called the Stelton School, founded in 1915. Although the school was originally located in New York City, it moved to Stelton after a bomb intended for John Rockefeller went off a few blocks from the school. While in New York, a who’s who of intellectuals were involved with the school, including historian Will Durant, artist John Sloan, and poet Lola Ridge.

The new campus was created on 68 acres of farmland in Stelton, New Jersey, just outside of New York City. The students attending the school were not elite: a New York Times article from 1981 reports that the families of the children who attended the school were “carpenters, cigar makers, plumbers, electricians, and others who worked with their hands.”

The school did not have traditional class periods. Students learned from different adults around the campus by doing things that incorporated all academic disciplines. The students ran their own literary magazine, which they printed themselves. Students built a shack, learning math through measurement and literacy through reading directions.

The school eschewed the traditional school day. Children were allowed to come and go as they pleased. What is most astounding is that the children did not appear to have been adversely affected academically. In 1981, the New York Times reported: “The students did well in the academic areas, and many became top performers and valedictorians at nearby New Brunswick High School, where they went at age 14 (if they wanted to).”

The school eventually closed down in the 1950s as a result of harassment of students by soldiers at the nearby Camp Kilmer, and an ideological move toward more conservative, traditional schooling by the surrounding community.

Around the same time as the founding of the Stelton School, another major force in education was rising: the progressives. One of the most influential of these progressives was Andrew Carnegie, a steel industrialist who dabbled in various philanthropic initiatives, including education — a turn-of-the-century Bill Gates.

The Carnegie Foundation sought to define a “Carnegie Unit” as “a course of five periods weekly throughout an academic year,” and 14 Carnegie units as being the proper amount to require for admission to a university. The definition of a proper education became defined not by what was learned but, rather, by an amount of time spent in a class. Carnegie backed up these demands with a $10 million donation to a pension fund for retired college professors.

The shift in the discourse within higher education percolated through America’s nascent high schools. At the time, fewer than 10% of Americans graduated from high school. As the high school population grew, the new schools were structured around the Carnegie unit. Schools were about spending a required amount of time in a class to be able to move up to the next grade. By the 1920s, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools required the Carnegie Unit system for accreditation.

The necessity of seat time and serving time was expanded as child labor laws were enacted and the problem became: what ought children do during the day if they are not working? According to a 1931 article from the New York Times: “During the years 1928–1930 a dozen or more states amended their laws so as to promote increased school attendance.”

So for students, one factor of graduation from secondary school became seat time — or serving time in schools. Tyack and Tobin write: “Learning was becoming institutionally defined as serving time, progressive critics claim, although the reward at the end of the lockstep progression was a ‘credit.’

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Social promotion is threaded into the way in which we think about education in the United States. It has always produced problematic consequences, but the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated them to a degree that will be felt for years to come. Imagine trying to teach a classroom of 7th graders in which some students received a 6th grade education while other students, mostly of no fault of their own, have not received any formal schooling since the end of 5th grade. Are these students really better served in a system that incentivizes pushing them to 7th grade rather than having them receive the schooling they missed in 6th grade?

Part two of this series will explore the more recent history of social promotion as well as some alternatives to social promotion.

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Matt Tyler

Civics teacher in NYC writing about the history of education | James Madison Fellow | www.schoolsforpeople.com | tw: @schools4people ig: @schoolsforpeople