The idea sounds fair and commonsensical: Set standards for student performance and then give students time and help, including summer school, to reach the standards. If they fall short, hold them back a year for additional help to correct shortcomings and, ideally, propel them forward. It’s how a parent might dispense family justice at the kitchen table.

In the Chicago public schools, the kitchen-table approach finds form in Bridging the Gap, a program that retains low-performing students at four grades and then, for those in elementary school especially, seeks to boost them up during the year they repeat.

“It’s law and order, and it’s also support,” says Paul Vallas, the system’s chief executive officer and paterfamilias. Chicago’s program, the nation’s boldest retention experiment, has won its share of admirers, notably President Clinton. In his State of the Union message on Jan. 27, the beleaguered Clinton hit an applause line when he mentioned it and added, “I propose an effort to help other communities follow Chicago’s lead. Let’s say to them, Stop promoting children who don’t learn, and we will give you the tools you need to make sure they do.”

“We were extremely pleased,” acknowledges Blondean Davis, who as chief of schools and regions oversees Bridging the Gap. “Here the President was holding us up as a model for the nation.”

Many experts, however, view retention as politically expedient. “Retention sells,” says Laurie Shepard, University of Colorado education dean and a critic of the strategy. “It resonates with the American people, but no one ever bothers to consult the research.”

Indeed, Chicago’s program flies in the face of much research finding that retention itself flunks, leaving students as badly off as before and leading to a heightened high school dropout rate down the road. Yet Davis contends that retention Chicago style, which is heavy with help, is different, and some observers agree. “This is an effort to walk the line between social promotion and old-style retention,” says Fred Hess, director of urban school policy at Northwestern University. “The idea is right, but we’ll have to wait and see if it really works.”

Here’s how Bridging the Gap operates. Youngsters in the 3rd, 6th and 8th grades who fall short of specified scores—roughly one to two years below national averages—in reading and math on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills are advised to attend summer school. A grade of “F” in reading or math and more than 20 days of unexcused absences, including suspensions, also will draw a summer-school invitation. “These are kids who are so far behind they’re out of the ballpark,” says Vallas. For freshmen, summer school is mandatory for low-scorers on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (the TAP test) or for those who fail a core subject.

Last summer 41,000 students— nearly one-tenth of the Chicago school population—attended remedial summer school, or what’s called the Summer Bridge Program. The six- or seven-week curriculum—it varies by grade—sought to buck up its attendees to the point where they could test well enough to advance. “We purchased instructional materials centrally, and we had lesson plans for every day and every hour,” says Davis of the elementary effort. “We visited classrooms and monitored the process closely.”

The Summer Bridge, which cost $34 million, assisted many students meet the standards; for example, the average 8th-grader gained nearly a year in reading and eight months in math on the Iowas. Yet a sizable number either didn’t post a great enough gain or had too much ground to cover. Fully 15 percent of all 3rd-graders, 10 percent of 6th-graders and 8.4 percent of all 8th-graders were informed in August that they would be repeating. Older 8th-graders—those who would turn 15 by Dec. 1—moved on to “transition high schools,” where they get smaller classes and extra help.

Some parents convinced principals to grant their offspring waivers, but 10,046 elementary students (including those bound for transition high schools) were held back, out of 430,230 in the system. In contrast, only 1 percent of students in these grades were retained during the 1994-95 school year, according to the School Board.

The number of freshmen who failed to meet test-score targets in spring 1997 and thus kept their freshman status totaled 5,580, or 17 percent of the entire freshman class.

Meanwhile, the Reform Board pumped extra resources into schools, particularly elementary schools. The 65 with the highest number of retainees were allotted one extra teacher each to lower class size or provide small-group tutoring. Teachers were armed with computer analyses of the strengths and weaknesses that each repeater displayed on the Iowas. Bridging the Gap books, containing 100 one-hour lesson plans in reading and math, were distributed to the schools, and the board provided monthly workshops on instructional strategies for lead teachers at schools with large numbers of retainees.

“The lead teachers were to go back to their home schools and share,” says Judith Foster, executive director of the board’s Teachers Academy for Professional Development. Close to 80 percent of the target schools participated, she reports.

“Lighted schoolhouses,” an after-hours program combining tutoring and recreational activities and topped off with a warm meal, were extended from 40 schools to 248 schools. And WFBT-TV (Channel 23) aired The Homework Show, a daily program featuring master teachers giving reading and math lessons. Occasionally a celebrity would appear—U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, violinist Rachel Barton and Chicago Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer, to name a few. The viewing audience can phone in questions. “Some days we get lots, and other days no one calls,” says host George Blaise. (See related articles in Catalyst, December 1997.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union is supportive of Bridging the Gap, at least one other instructors’ group is sharply critical. “This is punitive and is going to have a negative impact on children,” says RaeLynne Toperoff, executive director of the Teachers’ Task Force, a non-profit that works with teachers to improve schools. Toperoff contends few lead teachers are attending board workshops, that the lesson manuals are going unused and that the curriculum—”a drill sergeant’s approach”—is too structured to address individual needs.

In addition to the $34 million for summer school, Bridging the Gap has cost $36.7 million for staff, training, materials, the transitional high schools and the lighted schoolhouses—another $8.5 million for the lighted schoolhouses came through a McDonald’s Corp. donation and a food-and-labor markdown. Down the road looms the expenditure, based on per-pupil costs, of having youngsters in school an extra year, an outlay of $44 million for elementary students alone. “That’s a financial bridge we will have to cross,” says Vallas, “but what’s the alternative? Otherwise, we’ll eventually be paying for our negligence in new jails.”

Flunking a grade or even two is nothing new; it occurs commonly in American schools. Nearly 18 percent of U.S. 8th-graders have been held back at least once, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, and 12.5 percent have been retained two or more times. A recent study by the American Federation of Teachers projects that nearly half of all students in large urban districts will be retained at least once before they graduate high school or drop out.

Chicago has not looked into the number of its 8th-graders who had been held back at least once.

What research says

“Nobody is in favor of promoting students from grade to grade without their learning anything,” says Don Moore, executive director of the Chicago-based advocacy group Designs for Change, “but retention isn’t the answer. It’s been tried again and again, and if it worked as advertised we’d have no objection to it. The fact is, it’s a harmful policy.”

Mounds of reports bear Moore out. In 1989 C. Thomas Holmes, an educational administration professor at the University of Georgia, hashed over 63 retention studies, dating back to 1925. He found that “on average, retained students are worse off than their promoted counterparts, on both personal adjustment [self-concept, attitude toward school and attendance] and academic outcomes.” Recent research on Chicago students echoes Holmes. A 1995 look at retention by the Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that retained students continue to falter.

The University of Wisconsin study reported that by 8th grade, retained students lagged six months behind their age-mates in their schools on the Iowas and three months behind their grade-mates. “Retention was supposed to help kids who are behind catch up,” says Arthur Reynolds, a social work professor and study co-author. “But kids fall further and further behind.”

Viewed as punishment

In time, retention also seems to heighten the dropout rate, researchers have found. The Chicago Panel on Public School Policy, in a study co-authored by Fred Hess and Diana Lauber, tracked Chicago high-schoolers in the early 1980s, after retention had tightened on 8th-graders; it discovered that those who had been held back had a dropout rate that was 11 to 15 percent higher than those who had had similar reading scores but were not held back.

In “Flunking Grades,” a 1989 book co-edited by Laurie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith and still the bible on retention, one study of black males in Austin, Tex., shows retained boys faced a 27 percent higher risk of ditching high school. Another study found that retained white girls in a rich white suburb in the Northwest faced a 21 percent greater likelihood of not finishing high school.

The reasons why are easy to fathom. “Retained children perceive retention as a punishment and a stigma, not as a positive event designed to help them,” writes Deborah Byrnes, a Utah State University education professor who studied retainees in a southwestern border city. Mary Lee Smith, an education leadership professor at Arizona State University, is blunter: “A kid who’s held back feels a lack of self-esteem. How else would you feel? Your friends are going on, and there you are, the biggest and dumbest kid in the class.” Smith says that the extra year, rather than serving as a fillip, tends to dull the senses. “Schools hardly make it exciting to flunk,” she remarks. “You’re subjected to the same stuff—the same books, the same field trip, the same class parties. It’s a huge waste of resources and time.”

It’s preferable, says Don Moore, “to promote kids and then provide them with intensive additional help in the higher grade. That way the cost is less and the stigma is less.” Blondean Davis, however, argues against promotion with intervention: “To promote a student—to give the impression that he has mastered a body of knowledge—does a disservice. It’s impossible to understand what’s going on at the higher level. It sets the child up for failure.”

Mary Lee Smith advises that instead of retention, a school system would do better to pump its attention and resources into smaller class sizes, tutoring and “inventive” summer school. “All these things work,” she says. Where retention itself has proven valuable, says Thomas Holmes, is where school systems insure small class sizes and top-notch remedial help, where students tend to be of at least average IQ and where there is a real chance of being double-promoted back to level. “That’s a good carrot to hold out,” he says.

Back on track

The Reform Board is offering that carrot. Beginning this summer, it will conduct a specially designed summer school for 3rd- and 6th-graders who repeated and made substantial gains in their reading and math scores. Even then, the successful students will be more than a year behind national norms. “But we’ll give them additional support in after-school programs,” promises Davis.

The opportunity for double promotion makes Fred Hess, now director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University, a supporter of the board’s retention policy.

“One of the large problems with the city schools is that kids don’t feel engaged,” he says. “And unless there are consequences, what leverage do you have to get them engaged? One message this sends is that there are huge consequences if you don’t work at your work.” Yet while Hess likes the emphasis on remediation, he is unsure how it’s panning out in classrooms. “Is the instruction good enough to bring up kids who are already deficient?” he asks.

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), says retention is frequently destructive for a struggling child. “But given the choice between social promotion, which can be a disaster, and retention, I’d rather give the child another year in the hopes that something clicks,” she says. Feldman’s idea of retention, though, is coupled with intervention, such as after-hours tutoring, different materials and team teaching. “I like the idea of Chicago’s retention, which is retention with intervention,” she remarks. (The Chicago Teachers Union is the AFT’s local affiliate.)

Under the previous policy, principals and teachers mulled decisions on retention, with parents being consulted at the end. As the new School Reform Board of Trustees took hold of the system in 1995, top board officials began discussing a stricter approach. Vallas says retention’s utility was first raised in conversations among himself, DePaul University Education Dean Barbara Sizemore and Maribeth Vander Weele, head of the board’s Office of Investigations; the discussions quickly extended into cabinet meetings.

“We would talk about how we were going to turn the system around, with preschools, staff development and a better grip on truancy,” recalls Blondean Davis, “but we kept coming back to that pool of students without the prerequisites to prevail at the next grade. The philosophy in education in Chicago then had more to do with how children felt about being promoted than with how they would perform, and we thought that was backwards—why should children be promoted to make them happy?”

“We thought that children actually feel better about themselves if they can translate material in a logical fashion and can experience success. We read all the research, and we were aware that a good deal of it doesn’t favor retention. But we concluded the research is incomplete because it addresses retention as an end in itself. Instead, we looked at an intervention strategy.”

“Social promotion has been a cancer that has undermined public education across this country,” says Vallas. “You don’t do a child any good by advancing him as he keeps falling behind, and it also hurts kids who are above him, because it dumbs down the instruction and slows the pace. It also puts stress on the teachers. The problem with social promotion is that no one’s accountable—not the kids, the parents or the teacher. You got a problem with a kid who’s not learning, social promotion says you just move him on, and there’s no pressure. But by the 3rd or 4th grade, the kid may be behind for good and never gets caught up. ”

Relying on its own expertise rather than research, the board originated what Vallas terms “a comprehensive plan” that, he contends, surpasses old-style retention. It targeted 8th-graders first; in 1996, 6,700 were sent to a hastily organized summer school. At the end, 40 percent of those students were retained. The Reform Board codified its new retention policy that August and gave the program the name Bridging the Gap in honor of Simon and Garfunkel’s sorrowful ballad “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Third- and 6th-graders became subject to the policy last spring; the first five transition high schools opened in February 1996 and went full-scale in August.

Many Chicago principals now laud Bridging the Gap. “We had to do something because the dropout rate is so high,” says James Cosme, principal of Otis School in West Town, “and without a high-school diploma in this society, you’re condemned—you can’t get a job. But you give kids a targeted extra year, with help, and you give them a chance.”

Frank Blair, Jr., principal of Brenan School in Roseland echoes him. “This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened in this system,” he says. “Youngsters now understand that to be successful, they have to work very, very hard. They know, and their parents know. And our expectations are going to get higher and higher.”

`School transformed’

Some schools claim they’ve been transformed. Two years ago the student body at Shoop School in Morgan Park displayed a lackadaisical air, according to Principal Lee Brown: “The kids didn’t care because they knew they weren’t going to be held back. Attendance left much to be desired. We had kids not coming to school 40 or 50 days a year. Nobody did their homework or class work, because they knew they’d be passed right along.”

After the full-scale retention policy for autumn 1997 was announced, Brown drummed it home at assemblies and through letters home to parents. When some parents complained—one petitioned Paul Vallas himself with a three-page letter, and another called Vallas directly—Brown was unbending. “I told my people that if they didn’t do well in summer school and had to return to the same grade, they should view that as a fresh start,” she says. “Many of my colleagues gave waivers to students, but I made no allowances. Sympathy won’t make children better citizens.”

In all, 75 of Shoop’s 724 students were retained; the largest group was in 3rd grade, which was the trend citywide. Repeaters were assigned to classrooms with different instructors than they had had, and the youngsters received tutoring, with teachers using the board-provided material. The extra teacher funded by the board helped create an additional 6th grade, which lowered average class size from 27 to 24. The school applied its own poverty money to extend the lighted schoolhouse from two days to four. In general Brown told her charges: “You can use this year to your advantage. You’re starting out ahead of your classmates—it’s like you’re on a quiz show and you know all the answers.”

In Darrylin Ford’s 3rd grade, one-third of the students are retainees. At first, many were displeased. Tameka Jamison, who previously attended schools in Indiana and Cabrini-Green, was one of them. “Tameka was unhappy about repeating,” says her grandmother, Ada Ward, a sales clerk. “It still upsets her because she feels she should be in a higher grade, but she’s learning to live with it.”

Tameka herself says, “I’m 10 years old, and I should be in 4th grade. This is depressing, but Mrs. Ford’s class is interesting.”

Donald Words, a police detention aide, describes his son Diontae, 9, as being “closed up into a shell. He’s scared to raise his hand, and he cries a lot as well. This has kind of hurt his self-image, but I tell him, ‘You have to take responsibility for your actions.'” Words says his wife now sits with Diontae at night when he does his homework.

“As bad as some might feel at being held back, what feels worse is when you’re struggling and there’s nothing you can do,” says Ford, a big supporter of retention. “Now my kids are able to concentrate on reading and computing.” Ford herself has been especially pleased with the Bridging the Gap books, which she marches through one lesson a day. She’s also been training her youngsters on test-taking skills, “on how to fill in the bubble on the answer sheet,” as she says.

Improvement at Shoop is both palpable and measurable, says Principal Brown. Average daily attendance has shot up—from 89 to 95 percent—and discipline has improved markedly. (“Now I have an 8th-grade heaven,” one 8th-grade teacher informed Brown.) Grades have risen, as has compliance with Shoop’s white-tops-and-blue-bottoms uniform code. “In the spring, unless I miss my guess, our scores on the Iowas will go way up,” figures the principal.

There are doubters, too. “They are getting tutoring and remediation in Chicago—what I’d call retention-plus—and though the climate is positive, I wonder if it’s enough,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Arthur Reynolds. “It’s hard to do everything every day for every child, and that’s what you need for lagging students in a system like Chicago. You need a huge emphasis, a pretty perfect program, to make up the difference, and I’m not sure that’s happening.”

Cecellia Smith, principal at Kohn School in Roseland, worries about the fate of older retainees: “The old ones develop attitudes that interfere with instruction. Say they’re old enough to be in 4th or 5th grade, but they’re still sitting in 3rd. How do you deal with that?” Dina McReynolds, a Kohn 8th-grade teacher, says that while retention has energized a trio of girls—one a twin whose sibling graduated—the rest of her repeaters seem stuck in neutral. She describes the bottom tier this way: “They are ho-hum, lazy and unfazed by repeating. They just sit there, though even the low-end ones seem concerned about the Iowa tests and how they’ll do.”

Blondean Davis says that while some students experience “disappointment” at being held back, “the feeling of being successful when you reach your goals outdistances that.” She remembers in particular one youngster she encountered while accompanying Reform Board President Gery Chico at a summer commencement speech. The boy had repeated 8th grade but cleared the Summer Bridge Program the second time, his test scores rising dramatically. “I could have done this before,” the boy told Davis. “I was lazy.” Davis thinks that many students, now retained, have been similarly enlightened.

The regions chief points to several schools that she considers exemplars of remediation. At Chalmers School in North Lawndale classes full of retainees are kept small (to 22 children), and 1 1/2 hours of each morning is devoted to reading. Groups at various skill levels pay specific attention to drawing inferences and meanings since “that accounts for 28 percent of the questions on the reading Iowas,” notes Principal Charlotte Blackman. Every 6th-grade repeater has a peer tutor, plus Blackman has assigned one teacher to concentrate on helping small groups of laggards. The thrice weekly lighted schoolhouse is officially optional at Chalmers, but in reality it’s not. “Oh, the bell rings at the end of the school day,” says Blackman, “but no one goes anywhere.”

At Beethoven School in Grand Boulevard, amid the Robert Taylor Homes, held-back 3rd-graders have been put into a class with accelerated lessons—to relieve boredom; they also have college-student and parent tutors.

The next round of Iowa tests is slated for May 4-8. This summer, underachieving 1st- and 2nd-graders will be sent to the Summer Bridge Program for reading (including phonics) and math. “We want to look at their growth patterns and deficiencies,” says Davis, “but they won’t be retained.”

One troubling question is what happens to repeaters who can’t make it after a second year. Vallas says their promotion will hinge on the discretion of teachers and principals, who may consider age and other factors. Davis says she expects most children to advance, though Vallas is more measured: “Some kids will remain behind, though they’ll be better off than if they hadn’t been retained at all.” The board is expecting to retain no child more than twice, according to Davis.

Meanwhile, this summer the board is extending its Summer Bridge Program to 1st- and 2nd-graders whose parents choose to enroll them; it will emphasize reading, including phonics, and math. “We need to intervene even earlier than we have to get them up to level,” explains Davis

Impact on statistics

The board has been monitoring the progress of retainees, gauging such factors as attendance, grades and performance on the Iowas. But no study is yet available. Davis contends the data’s significance will only be apparent in the long run, such as how 8th-graders held back in 1996 fare through high school. “This can only be understood longitudinally,” she thinks.

At any rate, Bridging the Gap is sure to affect systemwide academic barometers. Though Davis scoffs at the notion, some observers figure that repeaters’ scores will lift the Iowa and IGAP averages for Chicago schools overall this year. “The scores will go up a little bit for the next year or two,” thinks Don Moore, “but then you’ll have a pile-up of low-achieving kids, and the scores will go down. And there’s no doubt that the high school dropout rate will climb.”

Fred Hess says that the dropout rate, currently 43.6 percent, is a key barometer: a dip will be one measure that Bridging the Gap is on point.

The number of students who rejoin their age-mates is another. “If those rejoining their original cohort is 50 percent, you could say this is working,” says Hess. “If it’s 5 percent, it’s not.”

Another indicator, says Hess, is whether there are fewer and fewer retainees every year, a downward trend that would indicate students have gotten the message. Already, reports Blondean Davis, a board survey has found that 70 percent of repeating elementary students have passing marks in their subjects. The dropout rate will fall, Blondean Davis predicts, “and the blockages at the 3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th grades are going to disappear. We will have a city of capable students.” Vallas agrees, “All indicators will improve.”

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