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  • Becky Carlisle Cothern

Is Retention the Answer for Struggling Students?

At the end of every school year there is one "naughty" word that seems to float around- RETENTION. Many schools across the country are looking at the tests of struggling students to decide whether or not they will be retained, to repeat the same grade again. Many who support retention believe that students should not move on until they have gained the necessary skills from that grade. Supporters believe that students will struggle more and become more likely to fail if not retained early. There is some research to support this showing that students retained in kindergarten have fewer social and academic issues than students retained in older grades. However, I am seeing more and more schools looking at retention as an intervention measure.

This disheartens me when I see students being retained as a means of intervention. Intervention is what happens between day 1 of school and day 180. It is the small groups, one-on-one, concrete representations that students need to help them understand a concept. It is NOT repeating the same year, the same strategies, and the same tests over again. Retention means that not only the student failed but we failed as a teacher. Retention is NOT a type of intervention. In fact, the National Association of School Psychologists has stated that retention is “an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention.”

Although intentions may be innocent and even come out of concern for the student, retention can have many harmful side effects. One of the most alarming, is students that are retained are 5-11 times more likely to drop out of school. Over 20 different studies have shown that only 5% of students retained will see any benefit either academically or socially. That means that 95% of retention was worse or made no difference for the student. (Jimerson, S. R. (2001).) We wouldn't intentionally harm a student or delay their learning but that is exactly what we are doing when we retain students.

So what do we do? Every classroom around the nation has struggling students. How can we help these struggling students understand those necessary learning foundations?

1. Identify the struggling students early. We only have 180 days with our students. The sooner we identify them the more time we can put into helping them achieve.

2. Use the time we have. Think of several short learning activities that can be done in a few spare minutes, without any materials, or while waiting in line. Some ideas might be mental math, spelling games, subject trivia, etc.

3. Provide "high-dosage" interventions. Just as a doctor would prescribe a higher dosage to a patient who was not responding to treatment, we as teachers need to do the same. Students need more one-on-one tutoring with highly-effective teachers. They need small group instruction. And students need concepts taught in simple concrete ways that will stick with them.

4. Build a community around the student. Who is in the school, community, or student's home that can help. Work to involve para-professionals, principals, community volunteers, bus drivers, parents, and other family members in the student's education. Brainstorm a LONG list of who could help and then get them on board. Provide meaningful homework, flashcards, and mini-lessons to each person so they will know exactly what they can do to help.

5. Have the student set goals. Setting clear, distinct, achievable goals will help the student tackle the much larger problem of being behind. Every struggling student I have worked with, knows they are struggling. They may be years behind and feel defeated and unable to overcome the large deficit that is facing them. By focusing on smaller achievable short term goals students can see and feel success. And in my experience once a student has tasted of success they will want more.

Retaining students just to repeat the same grade, with the same content, and the same teacher is foolishness. Perhaps we can learn from the old cliche, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." If we want different results than we must teach differently. If we want to help struggling students we must provide them with a different type of teaching that will help them achieve. There is no one size fits all in education because students are individuals with individual learning styles and backgrounds. We as teachers must be able to diagnose and teach many different types of students. And when we fail we cannot retain them and think we are doing the best for that individual. So go out and find a student that you can help, a school you can influence, or another's opinion you can change. Enjoy!

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