Officials: Holding failing students back is ineffective

Holding failing students back a year simply does not work, education officials said Monday as they outlined plans to expand literacy and numeracy interventions for children struggling to meet expected standards for their age.

Chief Officer in the Ministry of Education Christen Suckoo and policy adviser Clive Baker both spoke in defense of the “social promotion” concept – advancing children through each year group regardless of their attainment level.

Speaking on the first day of the school term, Mr. Suckoo said that while the idea is often popular with parents and the public, research suggests it is ineffective.

“There are a lot of things in education that from a common sense point of view seem to make sense, but the research shows it is the exact opposite of what you should do. Holding students back is one of those areas. People speak to one or two examples where it might have been successful, but overall the general impact is negative.”

He said the ministry was focusing instead on providing the resources to cover the range of abilities within any given year group and bring failing students up to standard.

Similarly, he said, taking badly behaved students out of school is another popular concept that is not supported by research.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work to strengthen the ability to meet the students where they are and deal with the needs that are existing today,” he said.

Mr. Baker, senior policy adviser, said concentrating on interventions, for example through additional reading coaching, is the preferred policy for children who are falling behind.

He said there is a large body of research that shows holding children back actually has a negative impact on their progress.

“We base all our work on international research,” he said. “Intervention and bringing in response to fill the gaps has a very high effect. Retention of students not only has a low effect, it actually has a deleterious effect – it actually holds kids back. From a research basis, there is very little evidence that it helps.”

He said there were rare occasions when, based on the evaluation of an educational psychologist, a student would be held back a year, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

He was speaking as education officials met with the media Monday to highlight the progress made in the last school year and outline their action plan for the coming year.

Education Minister Tara Rivers said the Responses to Intervention literacy program had been one of the success stories of 2015/2016, helping schools surpass a target of 85 percent of Year 1 students reading at the expected age-group level.

She said new resources, secured through a supplementary education budget, would help continue this program and expand it in the coming year.

Ms. Rivers also highlighted leadership training for principals through the Ontario Principals Council, and the provision of Special Education Needs Coordinators for every school as highlights of the last school year.

She said both the 2015/16 plan and the new action plan for 2016/17 were aimed at addressing the shortcomings highlighted in a series of critical baseline inspection reports.

Principals, officials and education professionals from across the system met in a series of summer sessions to finalize the education plan.

Ms. Rivers said the inspection reports had provided “real clarity” on the areas of focus for each school, as well as broad areas of focus for the system. She said 50 new posts in the education system, approved after Cabinet sanctioned additional budget funding for education, would help provide the needed personnel to address the shortcomings.

“It was a consistent theme that we needed to strengthen special education and the provisions for the most challenged students. Year on year we’ve been increasing resources in that area. This year we are able to now make a good dent with the additional resources we can bring online very shortly.”

Chief Officer Suckoo said he felt the system now had the resources in place to make improvements. He acknowledged that progress would not happen overnight, but he said, with the plans and resources in place, he expected the next set of inspection reports would paint a very different picture of Cayman’s schools.