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Guest Opinion: District 81 retention policy needs attention

I‘m frustrated.

There’s really no other way to put it. Twelve years into my teaching career and only my second in Spokane Public Schools District 81, I am thoroughly frustrated with what I perceive as a major breakdown in our public educational system.

Here’s my dilemma. Many of my ninth-grade students, who are experiencing their first year of high school, are thoroughly unprepared for high school in terms of both skills proficiency and work ethic. In fact, entering this school year, more than 60 percent of them were below grade level in reading comprehension and vocabulary (i.e., skills proficiency); moreover, at semester break, more than 27 percent (more than one in four) failed my English class based mostly on not doing or turning in homework (i.e., work ethic).

These overwhelming numbers have, for me as a high school teacher, begged the question: What exactly is going on in grades 1-8 in the Spokane Public Schools? If the students are so lacking in basic academic and work skills, how are they even making it to ninth grade?

I went searching for an answer.

The first stop I came to was document No. 4425 in the Spokane Public Schools Board Policy, a document that was formulated in 1982. It states that “exceptions (to student grade-level promotion) will be made when, in the judgment of the professional staff, retention … is in the best educational interest of the student.”

That seems pretty straightforward, especially to someone as “old-school” as I am: Retain the kid when his/her performance is not up to district-level standards. It’s board policy, so any such retention would garner the direct support of the school board itself.

However, such retention is obviously not occurring in our district; otherwise, I would not be experiencing the frustration I described previously. In fact, as I continued to look for answers, I came to understand that the off-the-books “real” policy is that students are simply not retained. A few district-office personnel actually stated that we have a “no-retention” policy in place.

For example, what is really occurring in our schools is that a student can literally fail every class in eighth grade and experience no repercussions. Rather, he/she will actually be rewarded like his/her peers by being promoted/passed along to ninth grade. And it is in ninth grade that a Spokane Public Schools student, for the first time in his/her academic career, will be held accountable. That is, a ninth grader who fails a core class must retake that class if he/she wants that much-sought-after diploma in four years.

So if the policy is in place and our students are not meeting district-level standards, why are we not holding them accountable in grades 1-8, especially during this era of high-stakes testing? Many do not have any sense of intrinsic motivation to succeed in school, so why are we not providing the extrinsic motivation until ninth grade?

Actually, the answer is a bit simpler than I had originally thought—according to contemporary research, retention by itself doesn’t work, plain and simple. In fact, there are only two outputs of retaining a student: (1) directly associating both humiliation and punishment with education in that child’s brain, thereby creating a negative connotation for learning for that student and (2) institutionalizing educational insanity by doing the same thing over and over again while somehow expecting different results.

So, where exactly do we go from here? I may have answered a few questions along this journey, but I have yet to alleviate my frustrations of teaching at the high-school level in Spokane. Because the high school is absolutely dependent on the elementary and middle schools, we need to start searching for a districtwide system that will encourage all of our children to learn, thereby instilling in them educational motivators at a young age.

I’m not sure what that system would look like, but I am willing to start a dialogue, especially since the present 26-year-old district document dealing with the promotion and retention of students has become passé in light of contemporary research.

Sure I’m still frustrated, but with some focused attention on this failing in our educational system, maybe I can become part of the solution for the sake of our children.


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