In mid-April, President Bill Clinton expressed concern over the latest findings on student retention in Chicago and offered to provide some federal help.

According to a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, students who have been held back under Chicago’s promotion policy are not doing any better or worse than similar students who were socially promoted before the policy went into effect. (See story, April 2000.)

Addressing a convention of education reporters in Atlanta, Clinton was asked if, in light of these findings, he still believed that Chicago’s promotion policy should be a model for the country. He hesitated and appeared at first to be troubled by the question. “My answer to your question is, I don’t know,” he said, “so I’ll start with that.”

However, he went on to say that the policy may have helped identify a group of students who need new educational approaches. They might not be special education students, he said, but they didn’t learn under current approaches “even though they showed up in class and seemed to be trying, even though the teachers were trying, everybody was trying.”

“Before the principle is abandoned, I would like to see some new and different efforts made to see if different kinds of strategies would help those kids to learn,” he said. “Chicago may have enough people to identify a class of folks that we ought to make a special, national effort to see if there are some other strategies that would help them.”

“I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d be willing to try,” he said, “if they [Chicago officials] want to do it, if they want some help from us.”

In Chicago, a top school district official welcomed the offer of help and affirmed Clinton’s assessment that the policy has identified a special student population. Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen said officials are working with Melissa Roderick, the author of the Consortium study, to understand the special needs of retained students. “Additional resources would be helpful,” he said.

Preliminary data already have suggested a direction to follow, according to Hansen. “We’re confident that these will be kids with poor attendance, kids who move around a lot both in and out of the system, and from school to school. A straight program won’t help these kids. A six-week computer program won’t help them if they’re not there for three of those weeks.”

Retained students are likely to need “wrap-around support,” Hansen said, which would include collaborative efforts with city and state agencies like the Department of Children and Family Services. They might need individual instructional programs, like those created for special education students, and the most effective interventions for kids who move often may be short-term, intensive ones, he said, “so you can catch them while they’re there.”

Roderick’s research found that many low-achieving students had made gains under the board’s promotion policy, which provides extra help like summer school and after-school programs to help kids boost achievement. Those gains tended to stick after those students cleared the hurdles to promotion, Roderick found.

Those extra programs “winnowed out” the kids who could be helped by them, Hansen said, leaving the kids with the toughest problems. “It’s like peeling an onion. I’ll be honest with you: This is the first time we’re able to identify this core group. … There’s no quick fix with these kids. They have to be tracked and monitored better.”

In late April, a senior Clinton aide indicated that new federal money is unlikely, and that Education Department officials are in the first stages of thinking through what other help might look like.

“I’m not sure that lack of money is the problem or that more money is the answer,” said Michael Cohen, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “What I suspect is going to be needed is some way to help people learn from their earlier experiences,” he said, noting that the Consortium already helps Chicago officials do just that.

Cohen speculates that the Education Department may set itself up as a kind of information clearinghouse for large districts that are experimenting with ending social promotion.

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