Pass or Fail Jorge? A Teacher’s Dilemma

Today, she must tell the principal who has to be held back. What should she do with Jorge?

Jorge is a year older than everyone else in the class; he had been held back once. In reading and math he is still at least a year below grade level but he has improved a lot in each subject. He does his homework turning in papers often filled with smudges and wrong answers. In class, he raises his hand to answer questions, occasionally getting the right answer. He never stops trying. He is the most anxious-to-please eleven year-old the teacher has ever had. But he is at the bottom of the class academically.

Sometimes Jorge would get so frustrated with a lesson that he would get into fights. Once, he was suspended for talking back to the teacher. Yet she remembers how Jorge, speaking Spanish to a newly arrived Mexican boy, taught him to play kickball. No one else had done that. She recalls how he would gracefully settle arguments between classmates and figure out elegant solutions to problems the class was having with other fourth graders during recess. But none of these talents had raised his low test scores.

What should she do with Jorge?

Failing him simply on the basis of below-grade level work in reading and math might satisfy the new superintendent and reformers who constantly tout high academic standards to repair our country’s economic health. It is easy to talk about rigorous standards in the abstract but hard when Jorge is sitting ten feet away intent upon finishing long division problems. Does flunking Jorge help maintain academic standards? Will he become an example to other students to work harder out of fear of repeating a grade?

The teacher then asked herself what would it mean to Jorge to repeat the fourth grade. Would this help Jorge learn to read better? All of his friends would be in fifth grade and he would be with classmates two or more years younger than him. Would he feel even dumber than he says he feels now when he fails a test? The teacher knows that those who yell loudest about the importance of academic standards seldom worry about how repeated failures corrodes the spirit of a child.

Would promoting him be any better? Fifth grade reading and math are even more demanding than fourth grade work. Jorge would simply fall further behind. Yes, he would be with his friends and he won’t be the tallest in the class anymore but he would need so much help just to stay even with his classmates. The district, however, has cut back on services so there is no additional help for Jorge.

Jorge’s teacher is faced with the persisting dilemma built into the DNA of today’s schools: annual promotion or retention. Sure, teachers want students to reach district standards. Yet these same teachers know from experience that flunking a student seldom helps him (more boys than girls get retained in grade) do well in school in subsequent years. Research supports practitioner wisdom.

Holding back children in the early grades often leads to increased absenteeism, troublesome behavior in later grades, and eventually dropping out. If the purpose of retention-in-grade is to help students improve academically, researchers have found few such benefits.

But such research findings mean little to the new sprinter-like superintendent and her school board: social promotion, they say, will produce unskilled graduates. Schools must separate achievers from non-achievers. Flunk Jorge.

Is there no other way out of this dilemma?

Some schools have gotten around this bind facing Jorge’s teacher by grouping children by age rather than grade. Instead of kindergarten, first and second grades, a primary unit of five-to-eight year olds gives students time to catch up on their academic and social skills over a three-year period rather than forcing a yearly promotion decision. Such faculties know what every decent gardener knows: all daisies don’t grow at the same rate. Some need more time and care to flourish.

Still students move from elementary to middle school and then on to high school. What to do with students still below district academic standards? Some school districts help students not yet ready for the next level of schooling. Other districts ungrade upper-level units. They believe that it is not only intelligence but also time and student effort that count.

But Jorge is in a district that doesn’t have such ungraded units and continues to cut back on services. His teacher still faces the dilemma. She knows in her heart that Jorge has fine personal qualities that might shrivel were he to repeat the grade. Yet the boy is far behind academically. With a shrug of helplessness, the teacher puts a check in the column marked “retain” next to Jorge’s name.

7 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

7 responses to “Pass or Fail Jorge? A Teacher’s Dilemma

  1. Megan

    Larry,

    What an amazingly perfect description about the dilemmas that teachers and principals face when working with the Jorges in our classrooms and schools. How heartbreaking for all of the students who find themselves in Jorge’s situation. I believe that retention almost never provides students with the academic boost they need, especially when considered with the negative trade-offs you described above. We need more options for students who do not fit in the conventional student mold.

  2. Hello! Followed over here from the LFA blog. Has anyone considered laying out the quandry and allowing Jorge’s PARENTS to decide what is best for him? They might just have very strong feelings on the subject, and I don’t see why a questionable case couldn’t be decided in conference with the principal, parents and teacher. Jorge might want some input, too, as he is getting older.

    • larrycuban

      Of course, Mrs. C, you propose a reasonable way of dealing with retaining or promoting Jorge. Let’s say that what you propose is exactly what occurred. There was a conference with all of the parties, as you suggest. The decision was to retain (or maybe the decision was to promote). Would the consequences for Jorge be any different than what the teacher had considered, based on her experience and wareness of research? I do not think so. The larger point in the posting is that policymaker and popular demand for rigorous academic standards and the end of “social promotion” without having district and school services to help individual kids is empty policy rhetoric and destructive in practice to individual students.

      • Oh, yes, I *absolutely* get your point. I just know that occasionally there will be borderline cases and certainly parents might be very adamant one way or another. It might not be borderline for them at all. :]

        I think the problem comes when we expect progress in, say, math, to match our progress in English or history. I have a little boy who in preschool could add triple digit numbers and tell time. But before you get impressed, he still can’t cut a circle out on the lines or keep his hands still. His writing is atrocious! He was pulled from kindergarten after getting suspended three times in a week. He is just unable to remain still as they would wish. And he works so hard at it.

        Yet he has just turned eight and has nearly completed Singapore Maths 4B. Were he in public school, he would be beginning second grade. His writing would be expected to be legible, but he would *just* be beginning that multidigit math. I have no clue on how many times the poor kid would have been suspended by now…

        It would be nice if children could be grouped more or less by ability in each subject to allow their talents to develop. Maybe Jorge will never be a mathematician. I wouldn’t be so intensive with him on his maths, but perhaps encourage him to learn a third language. He’s very personable, and there are *so* many careers someone who speaks two languages AND gets along with others could do. If he can fill out standard forms, he would already but for his age be employable as a hospital translator.

        Sometimes I think we worry too much about “grade” rather than developing the talent the child has.

  3. Mary Johnson

    Hi Larry,

    This is an interesting case and a common dilemma, I’m afraid. However, it does “take a village” to raise a child and I think this is a wonderful time for the “village” to get involved.

    I agree with Mrs. C. that the parents should be involved in the process of making the decision, but I hope a red flag would have raised in Jorge’s case BEFORE the situation became so dire. This year, as a classroom volunteer, I worked with a female version of Jorge, and we just took things more slowly than the class and we took lots of breaks to laugh. The tension level for a child like Jorge is already very high and though his parents probably support his education, they may not know HOW to do this specifically.

    In an ideal world, there would be extra instruction for both Jorge and his parents based on the sound research based on cases like his. In addition, I think the program to make many of the schools dual-language schools in San Diego will have many added benefits for students like Jorge and all of his peers in the schools.

    Let’s get going people!!!

    • larrycuban

      Hi Mary,
      If only Jorge had been flagged earlier, as you suggest, and if only he had a knowledgeable, caring volunteer like yourself, maybe, just maybe, his teacher would not have faced the tough choice of passing or failing the boy. The Dual language schools you promote is another set of services that a district can offer to both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students. The point again is that the policy of high academic standards is sterile, even counter-productive to many students, without equal attention to resources and services to the Jorges in largely low-income schools.

  4. Excellent article.

    Just a note that those of us teaching graduate classes at a university face this dilemma as well, although in a reasonably modified (and perhaps less stressful) setting.

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