Writing > Other writing > The Big Picture

The Big Picture, by David Anderegg

Spring is in the air, or so we are told, and that means many things for our children. One big thing it means is that we are entering Phase 3 of the school year. Some of you may not know these phases, or may not have articulated them out loud, although I would bet the farm that everybody feels them in their bones. Phase 1 begins on the first day of school and goes through Thanksgiving: it is the phase in which teachers attempt to get to know for themselves who their students are and what they can do. Phase 2, from January to March is the period in which teachers, having figured out who the kids are and what they can do, ask them to buckle down and get to work.

Phase 3 is the transition to next year. It is the time of school trips and graduations, the time of easing up because kids are distracted by spring and by moving on and saying good-bye, and the time for teachers to think about what's next. Phase 3 can be a lot of fun for some kids but not so much fun for others, especially those kids who are not doing well in school. This is the time of year when teachers start using, in sepulchral tones, the word "retention," a sobering word that no one enjoys.

Being a teacher, or principal, or school psychologist, might be a lot more fun (or at least easier) if all children developed at the same rate, like genetically-engineered corn. Children would never be held back, and the guesswork about who and who not to promote would be taken out of the process. But children are not genetically-engineered corn, and they all develop at different rates, especially in the early grades. It is hard for everyone in this process to admit how much guesswork is involved in decisions about whether or not to pass a kid along to the next grade, but often it is mostly guesswork. One could wish that something this important would be guided by certainty, but frequently we just don't have it.

The big guess: how much development will take place, on its own, in the next year? If a child is behind his classmates in cognitive or emotional terms, we can hope that holding him back a year will help him catch up. If he repeats third grade, for example, he may have another year in which to become a more fluent reader, or to grasp the basic concepts of arithmetic, and so he might be ready to face fourth grade with confidence for a change. This frequently seems like a good idea, because it often works: some kids do, in fact, catch up, because they are developing normally, only a little slower than some of their classmates.

But. There are those kids who are not developing normally, and they will continue to develop in an abnormal fashion year after year. It would be nice if we knew, for a fact, the difference between normally-developing children who will catch up very nicely with another year under their belt and abnormally-developing children whose information processing is off the normality track and will continue to be off that track. Teachers and psychologists have strong intuitions about these matters, but no one knows for sure, so no one ever knows if retaining a child will help him catch up.

The consequences of guessing wrong is that a child is retained in a grade, and then, at the end of the repeated year, is still not caught up with his classmates. If a child is not going to catch up, he needs something more from his school than guesswork. He needs, for social and emotional reasons, to move along with his classmates and to have special support services to help him with his ongoing cognitive or information-processing difficulties. He does not need to stay in the same grade until he fully masters the material, because that might never happen.

Sometimes teachers who are making these guesses make them without examining all the data, like someone looking at one corner of a big picture with a magnifying glass. It may seem, to a second or third grade teacher, that retaining a child for one single year might make all the difference in the world, and is therefore a very good idea. My humble suggestion (with all respect due to teachers who have to make these hard decisions every day) that teachers in this position acquaint themselves with the other side of the big picture. That picture is the picture of a 19-year-old high school senior.

Kids who are retained eventually become 19-year-old high school seniors, and this is not pretty. All of us, parents and kids alike, participate in a little magical thinking about the legal age of majority, and for all of us the symbolic value of turning eighteen is very powerful indeed. Turning eighteen means, to many kids, "you can't tell me what to do any more...I can make my own decisions." Anyone who teaches seniors knows they are a pretty restive bunch, and they frequently challenge the good order and discipline of a normal school when they start feeling their oats on their eighteenth birthday.

But nineteen? When they turn nineteen during their senior year, many kids start to get more than restive. They know that most of their age-mates are off at college, drinking and carrying on without adult supervision. They feel like adults, and they often look like adults, and they are beyond ripe. Instead of having a restive half-year after their eighteenth birthday, they have a restive year and a half, and it just gets more restive as time goes by. Some kids in this position actually fail to graduate, because they are so sick of following orders that they arrange to get themselves thrown out of school, which kind of defeats the whole agenda for which they were retained in the first place.

Even if they stay in school, they can burn a lot of bridges because they feel like grown-ups asked to submit like kids.

So, in this almost-lovely time of year, let's take a little time to consider this whole big picture, even the unlovely parts. Cute little third-graders who stay back now will eventually be nineteen-year-olds with agendas of their own. You think it's hard to retain them now? Just wait until they're nineteen, when they have to be restrained.

"The Big Picture" originally appeared in the "Our Children" column, Berkshire HomeStyle, March 2003.