By Christopher J. Steinhauser
Social promotion — the automatic advancement of students to the next grade regardless of their achievements — has plagued schools and teachers for years. How would you like to be a fifth grade teacher and have a student enter your class who reads at the first grade level? Social promotion dooms both students and teachers to fail.
Ending this practice is easier said than done.
Instead of an autocratic, top-down, orders-from-headquarters approach to raising standards for all students, something unique and revolutionary is now happening in the Long Beach Unified School District.
In an unprecedented breakthrough for a California urban school district, teachers here are pushing for students to attain specific higher grade-level standards before they move on.
Teachers here are champions of this change.
Our Teacher Council brought this issue to the table. The council, comprised of a teacher from every elementary and K-8 school, meets regularly with their assistant superintendent and me to share their ideas and concerns. They believe our promotion policy needs to address all grades and push all students toward higher standards. They also wanted multiple effective ways to help at-risk students succeed.
They have high expectations for their students and themselves. They have become vocal advocates of higher expectations for all students. They support the necessary interventions to make higher academic achievement happen.
Contrast that stance with the resistance in some other urban districts, the desire to lower standards, to excuse mediocre performance or to do away with testing altogether.
That’s not the Long Beach Way. We see teachers as the solution, not the problem. We’re listening to teachers and implementing improvements they propose.
In 1996, the Long Beach Unified School District first moved to combat social promotion as the only major school district in California to do so. The demise of this practice began with the district’s pioneering third grade initiative, then expanded to grades 1, 3 and 5. The state followed our example and adopted grade-level standards statewide.
Teachers here recently proposed and the school board unanimously approved applying in more grades new tougher standards for students to be promoted. Their goal is to have no student fall behind more than one grade level.
We are becoming far more systematic about intervening and following through with students at risk of failure. If necessary, we retain students until they improve their achievement. We know that being held back a year is less likely if a student is required to attend summer school. Despite recent budget cuts, we still have enough state funds to serve our highest-needs students in summer school. We also set aside school site funds for the most at-risk students.
More interventions now help struggling students get over the bar to earn promotion to the next grade:
• Math Achievement Professional Development
• AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination)
• Preppy Kindergarten
• After-School Tutoring
• Literacy Classrooms
Other award-winning efforts like CBET, Community Based English Tutoring, also help. CBET provides language lessons both to our students and their parents. It engages parents in their children’s education, requiring them to tutor at their child’s school.
I know of no other large school district in the state that has so many courageous teachers urging their school administrators and school boards to set higher standards. I know of no other district that acts on teacher recommendations with such can-do commitment.
By listening to teachers who understand that we must expect more to achieve more, we are doing exactly what all school systems should be doing: eliminating social promotion and making higher achievement happen. Public schools throughout the U.S. need to engage teachers in reforms like this that help teachers reduce the achievement gap.
When the end of social promotion is soon fully implemented, a fifth grade teacher will enroll far fewer students achieving even a year below grade level. Our new teacher-driven grade level standards and specific interventions give teachers help and hope. That’s in the best interests of every student we serve.