February 13, 2010 at 1:00 am

Sweeping social promotion ban could prove costly to DPS

Bobb says investment is worth it; board calls action a political ploy

Kim Jackson, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Malcolm X Academy, says: "I don't agree with social promotion. These children are continually passed on to the next grade and unfortunately we pass functionally illiterate children." (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- A new rule banning social promotion in Detroit Public Schools could balloon the number of students who have been held back a grade -- estimated to be 20,000 -- and could cost a significant sum to implement as the district faces a $219 million deficit.

DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb signed an executive order Friday immediately banning teachers from passing students who are not proficient at their grade level to the next grade -- to the outrage of Detroit school board members who called it a political ploy in the midst of a court battle between Bobb and the board over academic control of the district.

The order affects students at all grade levels from preschool through high school. But Bobb said he wants to target the eighth grade, where roughly half of students scored less than proficient in math, reading or both on last year's statewide MEAP skills test -- a move that could cost about $16.3 million if each of 2,173 who failed reading were held back.

Eighth grade emphasized

"Eighth grade is almost like a roadblock," Bobb said. "What happens is when you get to the eighth grade if you don't intervene and automatically promote them to the ninth grade it helps to raise the dropout rate and lower the graduation rate."

The ban is "going to create some additional stresses on our finances, (but) I can't think of a better place to invest our money," Bobb said. "There's no question, given the number of (low-performing) children, that it will create addition stress on our finances."

The move to ban social promotion comes amid a growing national debate over the practice as some urban districts, including New York City, have adopted a ban despite some research showing negligible gains for students retained at grade level and a higher dropout rate for students who were held back.

Detroit Public Schools historically has not tracked the number of students who either are socially promoted or held back a grade and was unable to provide data to The Detroit News.

But in testimony before the state House Education Committee last month, Bobb told lawmakers 20,255 DPS students not in special education are overage for their grades. That is nearly a quarter of the district's 84,600 students. The 20,255 includes 8,983 non-special education high school students, about 37 percent of the high school population.

School board member Annie Carter questioned the wisdom of Bobb's strategy.

"I don't know that this is a well-thought-out plan," she said. "It's very well to retain a child, but when that child gets to a certain age and they no longer fit into that age group, then what do they do?"

The district caught national attention in December when its fourth-graders came in last in the nation on the National Assessment of Education Progress with scores that were the lowest recorded in the history of the prestigious exam.

'It's a Catch-22'

"I am really for students remaining at their grade level with their peer group, their own grade group," said Freda Dawson, principal at Detroit Public Schools' Malcolm X Academy. "(But) I don't think kids need to be pushed (to the next grade), either, because they get further behind. It's a Catch-22."

While some educators blame the practice of moving kids to the next grade whether they're at grade level or not for low test scores and high dropout rates, and link it to high urban illiteracy that's estimated at 47 percent in Detroit, Bobb and DPS Emergency Academic Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett acknowledged holding kids back isn't the solution to the district's academic failures.

"Retention (failing kids) is not a cure-all," Byrd Bennett said. "If you retain the kids in grade without the proper intervention you can do more of a disservice."

State schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan said districts must abandon the idea of strict grade levels and transition to a system in which each child can progress at his or her own pace if real academic gains are to be made.

Customizing education

"This is the problem with having the system the same as it's been for 100 years with grade levels and time off in the summer to work on the farms," Flanagan said. "This is about rethinking how you customize education to the needs of the children.

"The system may pay for itself. You have to try and take into account that you're going to save money (on the) kids that are ready to move onto the next level."

Byrd-Bennett believes the district has been so dysfunctional over decades of failed administrations that there is no uniform or effective strategy to deal with failing kids.

"This is not the failure of teachers, or principals or parents -- it's clearly not the responsibility or fault of children," said Byrd-Bennett, in her remarks to the House Education Committee. "What we have in Detroit is an absolute failure of academic direction and leadership ... an absolute void of any comprehensive, integrated strategy to guide students toward academic success."

A preponderance of studies has found that holding back students does not improve academic performance, experts say. But results released in October from a four-year, $3.3 million RAND Corp. study on effects of the social promotion ban in New York City found fifth-graders who were held back did better in subsequent years.

A 1999 U.S. Department of Education report, meanwhile, concluded social promotion and retention are ineffective policies and that a district must take a more comprehensive approach to improving student achievement.

The National Association of School Psychologists also has come out against banning social promotion with a statement urging schools and parents "to seek alternatives to retention that more effectively address the specific instructional needs of academic underachievers."

Learning disability found

Linda Pruitt of Detroit said her daughter, Tianca Pruitt, a senior at Northwestern High School, was held back one grade in elementary school. When a teacher wanted to hold Tianca back again, Linda Pruitt demanded testing that determined Tianca has a learning disability.

Tianca was placed in special education classes, but Linda Pruitt says that wasn't enough intervention to help her child. Now 17, Tianca continues to be plagued by a reading deficit that has caused her to be depressed, miss school and threaten to drop out. She was recently tested at the Pro-Literacy Detroit reading clinic and found to have a second-grade reading level.

"She gets special education classes, but she doesn't get the help she needs," said Pruitt, who signed Tianca up for tutoring at Pro-Literacy Detroit.

Bobb said none of this year's seniors will be held back under the ban on social promotion.

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson, who taught in Detroit schools for more than 30 years, said social promotion has occurred for decades in DPS.

"It was an unwritten and disorganized practice," Johnson said. "I think some of them (principals) felt pressure to do so. They wanted to keep their grade-point average up and their failure rates down."

Worries over humiliation

That legacy has likely contributed to Detroit's 47 percent literacy rate, according to Wayne State University literacy expert Daphni Ntiri, a professor of African-American studies.

"This has been a longstanding tradition in the U.S., that you can't flunk a person more than once or twice because they are humiliated," Ntiri said. "It's contributed to the illiteracy crises we have. With a minimum of a 'D' you graduate, but you can't read or write."

Kim Jackson, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Malcolm X Academy, said overage children can pose problems in a classroom because some students end up being more socially mature than others. She said the alternative is aggressive academic intervention to assist lagging kids -- something she said has proven results.

"I don't agree with social promotion," Jackson said. "These children are continually passed on to the next grade and unfortunately we pass functionally illiterate children."

Added Dawson, the principal at Malcolm X: "If you have a fifth-grade student who knows they're not at the level they need to be in that classroom, the first thing they're going to do is act out."

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Tianca Pruitt, 17, of Detroit takes a reading test. The senior at ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)