Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 20 2012

Retaining Kids

There might be nothing in the world I hate more than Retention Meetings. Teachers in my old district always complained that we just passed on kids no matter what, but they clearly never had to be a part of meetings like this. Having to tell a parent that their child needs to do sixth grade again just wrenches my heartstrings in this unnecessarily intense way. Somehow I’ve become completely hardened to discipline (I’ve seen time and time again that structure and consequences are the best thing for kids, so no amount of tears can get to me anymore), but logic hasn’t yet prevailed over emotions when it comes to holding kids back a grade.


When I just think logically, I can get myself on board. We present the parents with tons of data from all different sources showing that their kid is FAR below grade level in reading and math. We talk about how this is just going to make the next grade even harder, and the next one worse after that, and so on. Then we talk about the benefits of getting to do a sixth grade a second time, so they can keep improving, see things again that they didn’t understand the first time, and set themselves up better for success.  We talk on and on about everything we know about the kid and why we believe that they’ll suffer in seventh grade but ultimately be much better off if they take one year to shrink their gap with grade level. We talk a lot about long-term goals and the future.


Then we start The Beg. We tell the parents about all the supports that will be in place for their kid to make sure the coming year is as successful as possible. We talk about intervention classes and support specialists and summer school and after school and whatever else we think the kid might need. We talk about how we’ll set growth goals instead of absolute goals if necessary, because we’ll never hold the kid back a second time. We pull on the connections we have with the kid and the family, hoping they’ll remember that it’s all coming from love and from concern for their future. We look everyone dead in the eyes and tell them, again and again and again, that we will never give up on this child, that we will do everything we can think of to make the rest of their lives great, and that this is a really tough decision but we ultimately believe it’s the best choice in the long term. If they so much as mention pulling the kid out of our school, we’re ready with a truckload of data in hopes of persuading them that it would be a bad idea. Then we hand them all the resources we can think of and trip over ourselves to offer them support, guidance, or space.


The kids all cry like crazy, but every single parent agrees with us in the end. Without fail, they hear us out, sigh, nod their heads, and sign the paperwork retaining their kids. A couple of them only bemoan the fact that their elementary schools hadn’t done it sooner. Everyone else but me seems to have a rational understanding that a twelve-year-old’s short-term suffering is a fair exchange for long-term success. Even the kids end up smiling and hugging us again in the next few days.


I, on the other hand, just can’t shake the little kids’ sad, sad faces. I know that everything we tell the families is true, and I know that these kids aren’t ready for seventh grade but will be much more ready in another year. Regardless, after those meetings, I lock myself in the bathroom and cry.

5 Responses

  1. MsH

    If this makes you feel better, there was a student in our district who was held back in 3rd grade, after being diagnosed with a learning disability. Her mother was a huge advocate, and actually asked for the retention. After a second year in 3rd grade, the young lady soared! She exceeded on the standardized tests she was given and exited from SpEd this year. What you have to try to remind yourself is that some students just are not DEVELOPMENTALLY ready to be in a given grade. Every student learns at a different pace and needs different supports. A student’s age should not be what determines their grade level.
    On the flip side, I am a huge baby when it comes to seeing my students cry, so I would be in the same boat as you. I, as a special education teacher, had to tell a few parents that their children would be placed into a self-contained life skills class in high school and that they would, most likely, never be able to take general education classes, rather they would be learning skills to live independently. Those conversations broke my heart. I held it together in front of the parents, but when I was alone, I was a mess.
    I know that the students need that level of support, as do your students, but I can’t shake the feeling that I missed something somewhere and that maybe if I had been a better teacher they would have learned more and would be more ready for high school. In reality, their minds are just not able to process the information they would be presented in general education classes. Years and years of data (including many IQ and academic tests) show that the life skills classes are the best course for the students. Just as your data proves that being retained is what is best for your students. Just remember, YOU ARE DOING WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR STUDENT’S EDUCATION! And that is all you can do.

  2. Gary Rubinstein

    Does the holding back ‘work’? Are the students who were held back the year before catching up? How many times can you hold a kid back? At my first school there was a rule that a kid could only be held back once so they stopped trying after getting left back since they knew they had a free ride for the next three years. Definitely a tough issue.

  3. Mathinaz

    I don’t know answers to any of those questions and really wish I did. My own lack of certainty is part of why I get so upset. I’m just trusting my administration now and going to see what happen.

  4. Generally speaking, the research doesn’t support retention; however, I can point to a few exceptions in my career in which a student showed significant growth after being retained. On a case-by-case basis, I don’t think it should be off the table.

    What’s difficult for me is tackling the question within the context of our traditional system. What is normal, “on grade level” performance for a 6th grader? So many of our benchmarks are ridiculously artificial. I can subscribe to a wide band of expectations (e.g., By 3rd grade, a student should be able to…), but this grade level stuff strikes me as pseudo-science.

  5. eminnm

    My school does not retain any students after 2nd grade as a matter of policy (admins cite an unnamed study that I have not seen, despite asking about it, that finds that kids who are retained after that are more likely to drop out. Forget that kids who can’t read drop out too. But anyway). It takes the onus of figuring out whether a kid is so behind they should be retained off my shoulders, but it also makes me wonder. In my school, the kid doesn’t get much “extra” if they’re retained, they just get another year in the same place. It sounds like your school really tries to support kids who are retained so they can make the kind of growth they need. I wonder how many schools offer that extra support for retained students, and how many of the studies that don’t support retention look at retention in those schools.

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