Holding back students who aren’t prepared for the next grade has been tried every which way—and consistently found to create more problems for students than it solves. The Chicago School Reform Board and schools chief Paul Vallas are giving it a go anyway, building a program that it believes will succeed where everyone else has failed.

They are providing impressive resources to help kids catch up. Summer school is being conducted at virtually every grade level, and hundreds of schools have new after-school classes. Some of the hardest hit schools are getting extra teachers so they can reduce class size. High school transition centers feature small classes and extra time. If the state had made it possible for Chicago to provide these resources all along, there might not have been as many children failing.

However, the New York City school system offers a sobering lesson about throwing student retention into the mix. A retention program launched in the early 1980s and abandoned in the early 1990s provided small classes, new materials and specially trained teachers to students who were held back. The holdovers initially had higher reading and math scores, reports Catalyst contributor Grant Pick, but three years later, the increase was gone, and the high school dropout rate among the held-back students had started to climb. Ray Domanico, executive director of the Public Education Association, a New York advocacy group, was an early evaluator of New York’s program. “It’s true that you don’t do kids a favor by pushing them ahead without the skills,” he told Pick. “On the other hand, if their teacher is inadequate and their school is lousy, you don’t do them any favor by making them repeat.”

Currently, it costs about $5,500 to give a Chicago student an extra year of schooling. If that money were invested in improving the skills of his teacher, many more lives would be touched. What might be lost is the motivation that the threat of retention instills in some students. However, a well-run school with a confident faculty can provide motivation of its own.

Given retention’s sorry track record, it’s imperative that Chicago study its program closely as it unfolds and report the results to schools and the public.

At the end of school system’s first Summer Bridge Program in August 1996, some 1,560 8th-graders were sent back to 8th grade because they failed, despite summer classes, to hit the new test-score standards adopted by the board. Another 460 8th-graders got a pass to high school even though they didn’t get their scores up high enough, either—in the judgment of their teachers, these students were at least minimally prepared for high school. Where are these students now? How many from each group are still in school, and how are they doing? How do their track records compare with students from previous years who scored just as poorly but were promoted anyway?

At the end of the Summer Bridge Program in August 1997, 8,741 students were sent back to the 3rd, 6th and 8th grades, and 1,305 older 8th-graders were sent to newly created high school transition centers. Statistical snapshots should be taken of these students and their schools at every benchmark along their academic way.

¡EN ESPAÑOL! We are translating What Matters Most, our eight-part series on elementary school improvement, into Spanish and posting it on our World Wide Web site. We encourage schools and organizations to download the articles and copy them for distribution to parents and community members. “Punching up reform,” the first installment, is now online at http://www.catalyst-chicago.org. This installment includes an analysis of the past 10 years of school reform in Chicago and feature stories on the improvement efforts of three elementary schools. Subsequent installments will be posted in the coming weeks.

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