When Research and Emotions Collide

Certain practices evoke strong reactions among early educators. Kindergarten “red-shirting (Katz, 2000),” academic “hothousing” (Hills, 1987), and developmentally inappropriate practice raise ire, yet pale in comparison to the issue of retaining children early in their school careers. As an increasing number of states adopt policies supporting, even requiring retention, emotions run high among early educators, policymakers, and parents on the topic.

Retention has been common practice for many decades but is retention the right way to go? Everyone agrees that a student will be well served by possessing necessary skills to learn and apply new information, yet we recognize that not all children grasp new information and skills at the same level or at the same time. Thus, the debate over the merits and faults of retention persists.

So what does research have to say about retention? Among many in my generation, retention of young children was seen as bad practice and policy, shaped years ago by research conducted by Shepard and Smith (1987) and reinforced by Jimerson (2001) and others. But as a scientist I know research contributes to understanding, and I strive to let emerging research inform my opinion rather than the reverse. So I hit the journals to review the literature, learning the issue is more nuanced than one might imagine.

You can simply ask, “Does retention work?” but the answer may be hidden behind several doors, not all of which lead to the same conclusion. The answer you get depends on the questions you ask, such as:

  • Does the design of the research influence results?
  • What criteria are used by states and schools to base retention decisions on, and do different criteria yield different research findings?
  • What does research says about the short- and long-term academic and social/emotional/behavioral effects of retention?
  • Does the age or grade when retention occurs make a difference in students outcomes?
  • Is retention an effective educational strategy for young children below third grade?
  • Does retention affect certain groups of students differently?
  • Are there effective alternatives to retention?

These questions were among those examined by the Southeast Regional Comprehensive Center Early Childhood Community of Practice and CEELO, when early education leaders from several state departments of education were invited to explore retention as an effective education strategy for young children.

I’ll spare you the details of research shared in this “succinct” blog, but here are a couple of my research-informed takeaways about a practice which affects nearly 450,000 elementary school children annually, a quarter of whom are kindergartners and 60% boys. Both teacher- and test-based methods for determining retention are associated with short-term academic gains (typically restricted to literacy) that fade, even disappear, over several years. Research shows mixed results on the impact of retention on short-term social/emotional/behavioral development while there is evidence of adverse long-term effects, including school drop-out. Retained children are 20–30% more likely to drop out of school. The fairness of retention policy has been called into question, fueled by a recent report from the Office for Civil Rights, confirming that retention disproportionately affects children of color, those who are low-income, and those with diagnosed learning difficulties, with wide variation in rates across states. Additional research shared with the Community of Practice about retention’s complexities can be found here.

I came away further convinced that the decision to retain a young child, while well-intentioned, is an important, potentially life-changing event; one that should include consideration of multiple factors as to its advisability for a particular child. Inflexible policies based on a single point-in-time assessment, on a single topic or skill (e.g., literacy), may be politically popular, expedient, and, as some would argue, fair, but the research doesn’t convincingly support the practice to ensure intended short- and long-term outcomes for all students.

Further, costs associated with retention are typically absent from policy discussions. We know significant numbers of children are retained in the early years, including kindergarten (Table 1), and average K-12 student costs hover around $12,000 per year. The cost of retention and lack of comparison to less costly, effective alternatives such as remediation or peer tutoring should cause staunch proponents to rethink their position. Combined with long-term costs associated with drop-out, crime, and unemployment, retention makes little cents or sense when signs point to the supplemental interventions–not to sitting through another year in the same grade repeating every subject–as having great impact.

While some encouraging short-term results have been associated with retention, policymakers shouldn’t wave the checkered flag just yet. We would be wise to examine the full body of research evidence, considering both short- and long-term consequences and the critical importance of providing children, parents, and teachers with timely educational and emotional support throughout a student’s career. Layer in the evidence questioning retention as a cost-effective use of resources, and the caution flag should be brought out. When it comes to declaring victory through retention, too much contrary evidence exists and too many important questions remain to allow our emotions to set policy in stone.

 
All
American Indian/  Alaska 
Native
Asian
Native HI/ Other Pacific Islander
Black/ African American
Hispanic/ Latino of any race
Two or more races
White
US 4% 7% 2% 8% 5% 4% 5% 4%
AL 6% 8% 5% 14% 5% 9% 9% 5%
AK 4% 6% 4% 8% 2% 4% 3% 3%
AZ 3% 5% 2% 7% 4% 3% 3% 3%
AR 12% 11% 13% 14% 26% 13% 11% 8%
CA 3% 9% 2% 5% 5% 3% 4% 4%
CO 2% 5% 2% 4% 2% 2% 3% 2%
CT 5% 12% 3% 16% 8% 8% 8% 3%
DE 3% 5% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 2%
DC 3% 33% 2% 0% 4% 4% 3% 1%
FL 5% 9% 3% 4% 7% 5% 7% 4%
GA 6% 4% 3% 11% 5% 7% 8% 5%
HI 12% 21% 7% 13% 11% 14% 12% 13%
ID 2% 3% 3% 3% 1% 3% 1% 1%
IL 2% 2% 1% 2% 2% 1% 3% 2%
IN 5% 5% 3% 0% 6% 6% 6% 4%
IA 2% 11% 2% 3% 3% 4% 3% 2%
KS 2% 4% 2% 0% 2% 3% 2% 2%
KY 4% 8% 3% 5% 2% 5% 5% 4%
LA 4% 3% 2% 0% 5% 4% 4% 4%
ME 4% 5% 4% 14% 6% 5% 5% 4%
MD 2% 0% 2% 27% 3% 4% 2% 2%
MA 3% 5% 3% 8% 5% 5% 7% 2%
MI 7% 12% 5% 7% 6% 9% 11% 6%
MN 2% 7% 1% 11% 4% 3% 2% 2%
MS 8% 10% 7% 5% 8% 14% 1% 8%
MO 3% 5% 2% 6% 4% 4% 4% 3%
MT 4% 6% 0.0% 6% 4% 6% 4% 4%
NE 4% 9% 2% 19% 3% 4% 4% 3%
NC 5% 9% 3% 5% 6% 5% 6% 4%
ND 5% 8% 14% 27% 13% 10% 3% 4%
NV 2% 3% 1% 2% 4% 2% 1% 2%
NH 3% 0% 1% 0% 5% 5% 0% 3%
NJ 3% 6% 1% 3% 5% 4% 5% 2%
NM 4% 6% 2% 0% 5% 4% 3% 4%
NY 3% 4% 2% 4% 4% 3% 3% 2%
OH 4% 6% 5% 6% 7% 7% 7% 3%
OK 7% 9% 5% 8% 8% 8% 6% 7%
OR 2% 7% 1% 2% 2% 2% 2% 2%
PA 2% 0.0% 1% 0% 3% 2% 2% 2%
RI 2% 16% 1% 0% 4% 3% 5% 1%
SC 5% 6% 2% 3% 5% 5% 7% 4%
SD 4% 12% 4% 0% 6% 7% 5% 3%
TN 5% 3% 2% 15% 4% 5% 7% 5%
TX 4% 6% 3% 8% 3% 4% 7% 5%
UT 1% 1% 0.0% 1% 1% 1% 1% 1%
VT 3% 0% 2% 0% 6% 0% 1% 3%
VA 4% 4% 2% 4% 5% 5% 4% 3%
WA 2% 6% 1% 4% 2% 3% 2% 2%
WV 6% 0.0% 3% 0% 7% 7% 7% 6%
WI 2% 2% 2% 6% 3% 2% 2% 2%
WY 5% 10% 4% 33% 17% 7% 3% 4%

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011–12.

–Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow

3 Responses to When Research and Emotions Collide

  1. karennemeth says:

    I just don’t understand how the answer to the question “What should we do when a year in our kindergarten fails to meet the educational needs of a child?” somehow becomes “Hey! Don’t change the kindergarten – just make that kid do the same failing program AGAIN!” And if you think that conundrum makes me mad, you should see how I react when programs make these decisions at the end of a school year. They had nine months to figure out how to adapt their program to meet the needs of that child and they got to the end of the year claiming the child had not learned anything – so the CHILD has to pay the price and repeat?? I don’t think the big question is whether or not there should be grade retention. I think the bigger question is: why do American schools retain curriculum and practices that are not effective for all children and why are they not doing enough to adapt to meet the needs of individual children before June? Do you know how many times I have heard preK and K teachers say they have concerns about a child but the referral process in their district takes 6 months or more? Somebody should be investigating that!

  2. For me the real question is why teachers think that either retention or special education will accomplish what they haven/t, a well performing child. Especially given that we have so much evidence that neither retention nor special education actually produce many well performing students.

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