I have a boy in the first grade with very mild autism. He has a speech impediment which makes communicating difficult for/with him. He often misses cues when someone’s mood changes, or when they react badly to something he did. He has difficulty maintaining eye-contact.
All my life I have felt that people should be held to standards*. That when kids failed in school they should be held back. You weren’t doing them any favors by keeping them with their peers, and you were impeding the ability of the next year’s teacher to cover the material. I heard stories of principal’s changing students grades so they showed fewer failures, or to placate angry parents and I was stunned. This is a prime example of the degradation of standards and the race to mediocrity that’s going to keep America from being great in the future. Idiocracy is destiny.
Then my boy went to kindergarten. I don’t think I got grades in kindergarten, but he did… and the grades he got weren’t good. I don’t remember learning to read, but I do remember that I had that shit down by the first day of kintergarden at age 5. While all the other kids lay on their mats to nap I sat in Ms Hemphill’s lap and would read stories. And thank goodness, because the few days when for whatever reason she had to be productive doing things that didn’t involve me during nap time felt like punishment to my restless little ass.
All my life I felt that people should have to earn progress… until my own kid was the one failing. He can recognize all his letters and knows what sound they make, but the recall is not instantaneous. So when he reads it’s like watching someone try to do a cryptogram without writing down any of the parts they’ve already solved. I might be able to do this… and having done it I would have a sense of satisfaction, but that feeling of satisfaction is not really analogous to the feeling a kid is supposed to get as he reads Green Eggs and Ham. Every time I talk to the teacher part of me expects her to bring up the possibility of holding him back a year (or “retaining” him to use the current euphemism… as if they would be choosing not to lay him off). His kindergarten teacher only brought it up once and that was in the context of assuring us that she didn’t think it would be necessary and Mrs. McDowell has never brought it up and repeatedly assured us that despite the fact that he occasionally brings home test scores in the 30s and has an average of 63% she thinks that it’s appropriate to advance him. And I agree with her. After all, how much sense does it make to hold him back a year when his knowledge level is a month behind the other kids.
Furthermore it’s not clear that repeating a grade will actually help him. Obviously if a student repeats a grade his academic performance will be better than it was the previous year when the material is new to him. This does not clearly correlate to the student performing better THE YEAR AFTER THAT when he is once again exposed to new material. Does it make any sense to anyone to repeat EVERY year? Scheduled to graduate highschool at the age of 30. The chance of a student who gets held back twice of graduating at all is practically nil.
But if students who lack mastery aren’t held back what is an appropriate course of action? The assumed alternative of “social advancement” does not seem fair to the students/teacher of the next grade. Not in the “no fair! You cheated!” kind of unfair, but that having a student who is behind affects the ability of the class to keep on schedule and learn as much as they can. In fact a lot of my distaste for my own public school experience came from boredom in class when the teacher was recovering ground that I thought was already covered but not everybody got the first time. I have a friend who taught highschool English who said “I can expose my students to poetry and give them that moment of clarity where they realize how beautiful language can be… or I can teach them to read, but it’s impossible to do both in the same class room.”
The answer to that dilemma when I was going through school was to put them in “remedial” classes. The word remedial comes from the word remedy and implies that they are trying fix the problem, but in practice it was just a place to segregate the kids that are behind so that they don’t bother everybody else.