Monday, August 10, 2009

A subjective conversation about the issue of grade retention

My occupational therapy practice is sometimes as much about parents as it is about children - and in fact the two are so intertwined that making the distinction is irrelevant. We get questions all the time about parenting decisions - and as these are directly related to both parenting and childhood occupations we try to help. Summertime is famous for conversations about retention.

I have read all the studies - but won't list them here because they may not apply. Still, the studies state that there is sometimes temporary/immediate benefit to grade retention but that those benefits disappear in subsequent years.

The problem with the studies is that they are done on such a large and heterogeneous group that it is difficult to say exactly who these results apply to. Parents and teachers and administrators get lost in the issue because they inject all kinds of ancillary concerns including
  • what will it mean if he is the physically largest child in the class?
  • is it true that the extra year will allow him to be more 'developmentally mature?'
  • our district does/does not have a retention policy so we don't do it that way
  • at the cost of $xxxxx.xx to educate a child who has a disability each year, we can't afford retention!
Clearly this is an example where large population research needs to be honed down and we need to look at practices on individual district levels. It would be more accurate for a district to conduct internal studies using consistent curriculum and early intervention/remediation/special education practices. That would allow for a valid basis of comparison between retained and non-retained students.

Parents ask me about retention all the time - and I usually shrug my shoulders. There does not seem to be evidence that can universally apply to all children. In general, I fall back to the basic idea that 'developmental readiness' may or may not be a valid concept because there is no way to measure such a construct. Is it possible that 'developmental readiness' is a smokescreen term to hide our lack of attention to specific individual or curriculum based factors?

That leaves us to curriculum or educational methodology (which includes remediation and special education). It certainly makes no sense to retain if we are going to deliver the same curriculum a second year! Rather, a best-practice approach should include intensive case-study to determine the individual factors that contribute to lack of progress and then educational planning based on those individual factors. I believe that this is the best approach to take until we see district-based outcome studies.

I am not sure how soon we will see this - because although we have Individualized Education Plans it is also true that we create curriculum and hope that all the children will fit inside our creations. Curriculum is efficient - but perhaps is a poor way to consider best-practice when administering special education. Is it enough for us to develop special-case curriculum and try to fit as many pegs as possible into the holes we drill? This ultimately boils back down to an issue of resource allocation. Just how far are we willing to go to deliver truly individualized education - and what can we actually afford?

Perhaps it is wrong for us to call it individualized? Would we be willing to admit that it is not?

I sometimes think that if we answered this question that we could begin to have a real conversation about the value of retention.

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