Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 02 2013

Advice Please! Retaining Students

I’m in need of any advice you might have about how to make the second year in the same grade a really effective experience for retained students. If you’ve seen anything work well, or have a great idea that you think should be tried, or saw something that doesn’t work and I shouldn’t try, I’d love to hear it. Please leave a comment here or email [email protected] .


Long story short, I’m generally not a believer in retaining middle school students and I’ve done my best to try to change my school’s current policy. My boss indulged me in debate and heard me out respectfully, but in the end we still disagree on all the key points. Of course, my boss was smart enough to say, “If you’re so concerned about this being bad for children, you’re welcome to design a plan we’ll use to support our retained kids and make it more beneficial.” Sneaky boss. I get suckered into everything.


3 Responses

  1. Woefully Underpaid

    Do you have any additional information on why the students were retained? Is it poor performance, or excessive absences/poor attendance, or are they ELL, or do they have an IEP or is it a combination of these factors? If it’s poor academic performance, I think it also matters if the students were held back because they didn’t do the work versus they tried their best but didn’t catch on for some reason. So…any additional info?

  2. Retained for poor performance without showing growth. Within that group, it is probably a combination of kids who don’t do work and kids who try their best.

  3. Woefully Underpaid

    Sorry it took so long to respond.

    Given what you said in your post, I’m guessing that you’re familiar with the fact that retained students generally don’t reap any long-term benefits from retention and actually become more likely to drop-out of school down the line. However, you’re faced with a boss who is requiring you to figure this out so I’ll share my thoughts with you.

    If it were me, I would handle retained students in a similar fashion to students with identified disabilities in that I would fashion a kind of IEP for the student. Of course, these wouldn’t be legally binding or have the formality of an IEP, but an IEP is child-specific and designed to understand the strengths, needs, learning style, and areas for growth of the student as an individual. I assume that middle schoolers where you teach also have multiple teachers so I would have the prior year’s teachers fill out surveys (you could even use or just slightly tweak the ones used for IEPs) and collect the information into a document. Hold a meeting with the teachers — and, preferably, the parents and student — to set goals and expectations. If the meeting cannot be held (for logistical, time or other reasons such as you not having the authority to coordinate such a meeting), the document demonstrating a clear set of needs and learning goals should be created. Perhaps you could have the parent and the child also fill out a survey about strengths, needs, goals, etc. so that they can participate in the absence of holding meeting.

    For those students who were retained due to a lack of attendance, this also works. IEPs (and thus retained student plans) include behavior goals so the teachers/admin can work together to identify behaviors and set behavior goals (i.e. attendance, failure to complete assignments on time, incomplete homework, lack of preparation, ditching class, etc.)

    I think that involving the retained students in the choices about their education and making them feel empowered (since retention tends to generate feelings of helplessness, frustration, shame, and anger) is key. I also think that learning needs to be geared towards the specific needs of the child and that can’t happen without a clear picture of what the child needs. In an ideal world every child’s instruction would be personalized but we can’t logistically do that in our system. However, we can and do implement this for subsets of students who have a demonstrated need. Retained students, in my opinion, are part of that subset.

    Again, I don’t have any research or scientific stuff to back me up here but it really is what makes sense to me and I’ve never seen retained students handled in this way. I’m not sure it’ll make sense to you (or anyone else) but if you happen to think it’s a good idea and want me to elaborate further, let me know :)

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