No-fail and social promotion policies are primarily about feel good politics. Meaning that they are about what politicians and bureaucrats feel are important based on government funded commissions, polling and research reports. In the case of these particular policies, it is ostensibly about maintaining a student’s positive self-image and self-esteem.
The result? Social promotion is now the norm in Ontario, and I suspect throughout the rest of Canada and the U.S. For example, as John Robbins reported to me in a telephone interview in preparation for his column in the Niagara Falls Review (which was subsequently picked up by blogs such as The Education Reporter and Fixing Our Schools), public school boards in the Niagara region use the term “transferred” rather than “promoted” when a child has actually failed.
Yet, it’s interesting that the Ontario government goes out of its way to suggest they do not have a no-fail policy, that lots of students are held back. However, that is not the way teachers see it. As the Toronto Star reports, the York board of education failed to promote only 6 Grade 8 students out of a total of 8064 last year and only one the year before that.
So, how did this all start? In Ontario, it was the release of the Hall-Dennis Report in the Ontario legislature in 1968 that changed everything. Built on earlier work by Ralph Tyler in the United States, the Hall-Dennis report was controversial from day one because it advocated: “Individualized programs of instruction for the development of the potentialities of the child, the removal of corporal punishment, and the de-emphasis of competition in the classroom and rote learning.”
So, is it true that students who are “transferred” don’t feel bad about themselves because they did not formally fail? Actually, no, it’s not true. Children and teens already know they are struggling to read, write or do math. They already know because when the teacher calls on them, they may cringe when they cannot respond as they should.
Actually, I know how many feel from personal experience having operated my own private special education practice and reading clinic for research purposes when I was teaching university. In every single preliminary interview, young, or middle aged adults would tell me something to the effect: “I knew I was failing as far back as Grade 3 because….”
So, don’t blame teachers. They are provided with government and school board curriculum documents. True, there is some variation from class to class and subject to subject in terms of subject units of study, but as far as board and government policies, they do what they are told.
And, over the years, they have been told to eliminate letter grades and percentages, as well as to include “effort” when they decide on grades. Now, they are also being told to ignore when work is not handed in or when classes are missed. Consequently, students are usually not marked on what they actually know.
The effects of these policies? Entitlement expectations and inflated grades have also become a serious problem at the college and university levels because departments and institutions are all competing for the same students.
As a result, as the Ivory Tower Blues blog reports, it is every department and every institution for itself. With e-mail, cell phones and the Internet, word gets out to potential students as to where the “best” universities are in terms of getting the highest grades.
Why is that so important? Because, interestingly, many employers are insisting on seeing official copies of college or university transcripts, looking for potential employees on the basis of high marks.
So, where do we go from here when the politics of no-fail and social promotion have obviously affected just about everyone in society? One place we could start would be to incorporate traditional methods with the progressive views that are so prevalent out there, such as an emphasis on academic standards and expectations that include natural consequences. Because going all one way has clearly not worked.
Endnote: Here is a link to my archive on the “no-fail” policy.