Just because the ed whiz-biz politicians and the education bureaucrats have announced the end of “social promotion” doesn’t mean that it ever existed–not for the past thirty years, anyway. Funny how they don’t seem to notice that we have long been devoted to sorting children into winners and losers at ever-younger ages. Since the early seventies, promotion policy in most districts has operated on getting a child out of eighth grade before he or she turns 16. This means being left behind two, maybe three times. Nobody, not even get-tough Chicago officials, wants bearded boys sitting next to 10-year-olds clutching teddy bears.

Urban superintendents should look at the dismal results of three decades of research on these retention policies: Repeaters leave eighth grade at the bottom of the scholastic heap; students who are socially promoted do better than repeaters; the probability that students who repeat two grades will drop out is close to 100 percent.

When children list things they fear, retention comes third–after losing a parent and going blind. Repeating third grade, Jessica tried not to be noticed, and when she spoke at all, it was in a whisper. Not much good at memorizing or synthesizing information, Jessica was helpful, reliable, persistent, kind. She was a good friend, the self-chosen mentor to the deaf child in our classroom, sticking with Leslie through tears and temper tantrums. Jessica is the one who, after months of patient practice, taught Leslie to read knock-knock riddles. The whole class cheered at this triumph. Jessica is also the repeating third grader who brought home the blue ribbon in the citywide science fair. She achieved this because we found a project that capitalized on her resourcefulness, her persistence, her indefatigability. For such habits of mind to be nurtured by schools and valued by children and their parents, they must be reflected in our report cards and our promotion policies, along with reading and math scores.

Instead, as Professor Robert Hauser, co-editor of the 1998 National Research Council report High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation, points out, our leaders “are pushing a huge national experiment with a policy that has not worked in the past–and without any evidence that it will work in the future.”

More evidence that social promotion is actually good for children comes from Japan. The Japanese keep young children together until the end of grade six. When I visited schools in Japan I asked parents, teachers and members of the Tokyo Board of Education, “What happens when a child does not keep up with his peers?” The official word is that no child falls behind because children who develop group loyalty help each other.

On December 14 the Consortium on Chicago School Research issued a glossy report on the city’s highly publicized “get tough” promotion policy. The consortium concludes that two years of a curriculum of teaching to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) has resulted in “impressive increases in the proportion of students who meet the test-score cutoff for promotions.” But the report also acknowledges that in the following year “retained students did no better than previously socially promoted youths.”

Schools chief Paul Vallas insists more long-term comparisons are needed. But increasingly, parents are saying, “Not with my child you don’t!” Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) is suing the Chicago public schools, contending that using the standardized test scores on the ITBS as the sole determinant of student promotion and retention discriminates against minority students. Based on his ITBS scores, the African-American son of one plaintiff was retained twice in third grade.

Last January Chicago’s practice of using the threat of failure as a pedagogical technique won praise from President Clinton, but eleven months later, when Education Secretary Richard Riley came to town, he told a reporter, “I’m not into social promotion, and I am not into retention.”

In Los Angeles officials backpedaled quickly when they discovered that their rhetoric of “no social promotion” could translate into 350,000 children being held back. Taxpayers who multiply an extra year in school by $5,000-$7,500 per head might ask about alternatives. For starters, early intervention, a daily one-on-one in-school tutorial, costs about $1,500 per semester. Likewise, such reforms as integrated curriculums, alternative curriculums, after-school programs, nongraded groupings and senior citizen reading partners are a lot less expensive, and more beneficial, than forcing children to repeat a grade.

No one has the gumption to consider the most obvious remedy. Just imagine removing the revolving door of inexperienced substitutes who staff many urban classrooms. Imagine getting the most qualified, most experienced teachers into those classrooms. Imagine paying urban teachers the same wages as their cohorts in wealthy suburban districts. Imagine giving them and their students accommodations that compare with those suburban settings. For starters, imagine having more than one physics lab in all of Chicago’s high schools.

Such solutions aren’t politically popular, because they shift responsibility for academic failure away from 7-year-olds and put it where it belongs–on school systems dominated by politicians looking for quick fixes.