About the Third-Grade Retention Fantasy
January 15, 2013
(Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on nmpolitics.net. In light of Gov. Martinez’s State of the State address today, in which she urged lawmakers again to approve third-grade retention, it seems appropriate to recycle this essay.)
I’ll start this with a confession. I was held back in third grade, not because I couldn’t read but because I obstinately refused to memorize multiplication and division tables. I expressed myself on the issue in strong terms (which was another but somewhat separate crime): I thought it was a waste of time and I didn’t mind saying so. After having achieved a Ph.D, three master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and spending years as a Burington-carrying nerd, intimate with non-linear differential equations and with a “log-log-deci-trig” slide rule carried in a holster on my belt, I still assert that memorization for the sake of memorization is a waste of time and a poor substitute for authentic teaching. Being well educated is not being a well-trained parrot or seal. I have a close friend who was held back in third grade because he wasn’t learning to read on the schedule predetermined by school authorities. He went on to earn a doctorate and became a college professor in spite of having been diagnosed as mildly dyslexic. He despises public schools in no small part because of his experience of being held back.
My humiliation for obstinacy in the 1940s still galls me because it reflects an authoritarian attitude which persists to this day and which has nothing to do with the self-discipline necessary to scholarship. This attitude is oblivious to what teaching and learning are truly meant to be and mindless of the consequences of treating children like seals to be trained to clap their flippers on command. The upside however is that based on personal experience I have a keen insight into this demeaning, antediluvian self-esteem-destroying policy. It is cruel, it is ineffective, and frankly, it is as stupid as the corollary—holding a teacher responsible for a child not learning to read on someone else’s schedule. The working definition of stupid I use is by the economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla:
A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
Children learn to read in the same manner as they learn to walk —as they become ready to. Children are not programmable computer chips all endowed with the same blank schedule on which they will learn what adults insist they learn. As a culture and as a society, we are supposed to be evolving, not regressing. Retention in grade is backwards and unproductive—if your intentions are to educate, that is. If you have other and ulterior motives, such as proving public schools to be ineffective so they can be replaced by corporate schools, that’s another case.
The first problem with holding a child back for not being able to do something the child is innately unable to do at that moment is that it humiliates and damages the child’s willingness to take the risks necessary to take the intellectual leaps that lead to true understanding and authentic learning. Secondly, the child is stigmatized by his peers for as long as the cohort remains together, which can last through high school, and that alone can be a deterrent to staying in school beyond legal necessity. The practice of retention is not educative—it is punitive, cruel and not conducive to establishing a life-long interest in learning. If it is anything, it is anti-social and alienating. Adults who were humiliated in public school do not make keen supporters of public education.
Reading can be and should be learned just as one learns a musical instrument—practice, practice, practice until fluency is achieved—no grade levels necessary. As there are no grade levels the music student moves from level to level as ability and understanding permit; the difficulty of the études are graduated as the learner progresses. Learning to read is absolutely no different. Grade levels are an unnecessary and counterproductive anachronism; they can only be justified as a punitive administrative convenience, and in elementary schools they ought to be done away with.
Another and often overlooked aspect of learning to read is motivation. A child’s desire and interest in learning to read is largely derived from home life. If there are no reading materials in the home, if the parents do not read, if success in life is not coupled to reading, guess what? There is no motive for learning to read. How then can anyone reasonably justify holding a classroom teacher liable for
those deficiencies in the child’s life? This attitude unfairly demonizes teachers and treads lightly on parents who are only too happy to absolve themselves, and whose political support is courted for ever-more-draconian school reforms.
Any educational policy that punishes and humiliates children for not learning at an arbitrary rate is inhumane and only serves to alienate, and it erodes the social contract. It is negative and self-defeating to society, not to mention damaging to children. What never fails to astonish me is the lengths some adults will go to to use children to further their own selfish political and social agendas.
I have what I call the wheelbarrow theory of child-raising and childhood education. In this scenario children are used by adults as wheelbarrows to truck around their own issues and agendas. These agendas and issues have nothing to do with the children so used—it’s all about the adults. What a pity.