Merriam-Webster Online defines social promotion as the practice of promoting a student from one grade level to the next on the basis of age, rather than academic achievement. In other words, such students are not promoted by merit and they move up from grade to grade with their peers although they have not met the promotion criteria. Those who support social promotion often claim that it enhances students’ social and psychological wellbeing, resulting in greater self-esteem.
The alternative to social promotion is generally grade retention. This is the practice of requiring failing students to repeat the grade or year in which they failed to meet the academic promotion criteria. These two practices are poles apart and each has its supporters and detractors. There are also a few other alternatives which we will look at in another post along with retention.
I have serious problems with social promotion and I think it does a great disservice to underperforming students. Unfortunately, it is a widespread problem in many countries. The American Federation of Teachers (1997) asserted that a majority of teachers reported that they had promoted unprepared students in the past year. Many states are trying to end social promotion because it does not work. Research shows that promoting failing students does not increase their achievement levels.
Some school administrators say that they do not have either the resources or the facilities to retain all underperforming students, so they utilize social promotion. However, they need to comply with the state’s promotion and retention regulations. It is thought, in some quarters, that some schools use social promotion to lower their retention rates and hide their true failure rates. Some principals argue that social promotion enables them to get failing students out of the school faster.
There is a consensus that at least 75% of administrators, teachers and parents believe that social promotion is harmful because students who are promoted in this way cannot handle work at the next level.
Students who have undergone social promotion usually fail to improve their study skills. They do not understand the basics and they are usually lost at the higher grade or year levels. They continue to fail and some may drop out of school through frustration. Teachers have to try to find ways to teach those who are academically ready for the class along with the failing students, and this is not easy to do. There is also a tendency for the struggling students to become disruptive or restless.
One of the worst features of social promotion is that it sends the wrong message to all students in the school. It sends the message that you do not have to work hard to be promoted. This message will destroy the culture, climate and work ethic in any school within a short time.
It is my considered opinion after 39 years as an educator, that social promotion does far more harm than good in schools. Each school must have clear performance criteria which determine promotion or retention of students and these criteria must be communicated to staff, students and parents. Promotion policy should state in detail what students must achieve in order to be promoted and must be enforced. Social promotion is a luxury we cannot afford if we are to fully develop our students.
- St. Louis schools aim to reduce social promotions (sfgate.com)