Friday, June 18, 2021

Retaining Students Is Never Fun, and the Pandemic Makes Deciding to Hold Kids Back Even Harder

As a teacher, the period between spring break and summer vacation is the season of awkward conversations. This is the time of the year in which teachers start looking at data and grades and make suggestions for retention.

These conversations are never pleasant for a variety of reasons. For one, parents and students rarely want to hear it and often do not agree. A subset of those parents will pretend like it is the first time they have ever heard that their child is struggling in school.

Overall, they just are not fun, and unfortunately, COVID-19 has added an extra layer of awkwardness.

Coronavirus has exacerbated every problem known to man and retention conversations are no exception. Some students have struggled with the online setting of school. It is hard to sell retention to a parent who believes their child would have done better in a normal circumstance. But at least with those conversations, you have some data to fall back on.

As we speak, I am preparing to have retention conferences with students that we have not heard from since the start of the pandemic over a year ago. Some I have never even met.

This is a problem nationwide. How do you start a retention conference off for a student who has quite literally turned in no work? Ordinarily, that is one of the easier conversations to have. A zero percent in every class leaves little doubt on the student’s ability in a normal year, but this year e-learning and technology difficulties serve as a convenient scapegoat.

I know for a fact one of these students streams his PS4 games online during school, but there are others who are homeless and couch surfing, and dedicated time and space for Google classroom were not in the cards. Is it fair to make said student repeat the grade?

There are some parents who want to hold their children back. Some states have even passed laws allowing families to “re-do” grades if they felt like their children lost out on too much. Even so, most research says that holding students back, especially older ones, should be a last resort.

The other aspect to consider is the systemic impact of holding children back. Retaining one or two students in class is one action and generally has little impact on the class coming in. However, if my school were to follow their usual retention guidelines, we would be retaining a significantly higher number of students than we usually do. It would be enough that we could not even guarantee there is sufficient space to accommodate them and the students we already know we have coming in.

There is probably no right answer to this question. Certainly, families have a huge say in what happens, and for good reason. They are the ones who have to live with the decision. One could make an intelligent pro or anti-retention argument for pandemic learning. If you plan on retaining students based on this year’s work, then you have a lot more conversations to have than in years prior.

An original version of this piece appeared on Indy Ed.

Andrew Pillow
Andrew Pillow is a fifth grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indianapolis, a charter school where he has taught since 2011. He is also a former Teach Plus Policy Fellow and he has taught technology and social issues.

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