Be all that you can be. Find your future--as a teacher.

Musings of a second-year teacher.

Monday, June 08, 2009

"A Gift of Time or A Waste of Time?"

I noticed the title for this post in a string of comments at TeAchnology that I've been reading in regards to Kindergarten retention. I thought the title sums up my confusion perfectly.

I've just completed my first year as a Kindergarten teacher. I know there are varying policies regarding retention in the school districts around mine, but my particular school district suggests retention for students who are unable to achieve certain academic goals by the end of Kindergarten. Each teacher made a list of students who we thought would benefit from Kindergarten retention. Since this was my first year, I met with all the other Kindergarten teachers and we looked over samples of each of my students' work. We then met as a committee that included all the Kindergarten teachers and our principal to decide which children would be recommended for retention. At our final conferences of the year, we presented our suggestion for retention to the parents of these children, but ultimately the decision was up to the parents. I was surprised how many parents disagreed with our suggestion. Knowing that there are conflicting opinions regarding retention in general, I've set out to look at some of the research to determine if I can come to some better conclusions about the efficacy of Kindergarten retention.

Regardless of the research, I must say I'm a little confused at the proposition that retention is always harmful. I have students who are still unable to identify numbers above six, who can't identify or write all their letters, and are unable to write any words phonetically. The students MUST have these skills when they enter first grade. Doesn't it intuitively seem that these students won't do well in first grade if they don't have these basic skills already? I can somewhat understand the rationalization if the argument is to promote a student who is academically ready but not developmentally ready. (i.e. the student possesses all the academic skills for the next grade, but may not be able to sit still or quietly or complete work without constant reminders to stay on task). But how can a student catch up in first grade if they are already behind at the end of Kindergarten? I understand the push for differentiation in the classroom and I agree that some level of differentiation is needed within a classroom. However, it is unreasonable to expect a teacher to be able to provide effective differentiation for students if they are on such different levels. That would be like expecting a teacher to effectively teach 20+ children that are on a K, 1, and 2nd grade level. In theory, differentiation is a wonderful idea. In practice, it is much more difficult to implement. Especially when you are teaching a younger grade and the students really aren't very independent. My K students can barely read and can't remember more that two or so directions at time, so they basically need me to help instruct them at all times.

So far, I've heard antecdotal evidence from my coworkers of the benefits of Kindergarten retention. However, I wanted to look at some of the current research to see if research backs up their evidence. I have not had a chance to fully read the journal articles that I have found, however, most of the abstracts suggested that Kindergarten retention is harmful.

Knowing that (some) research suggests Kindergarten retention is harmful, my question is this: Are there comparisons between cohorts of students who were recommended for retention and actually retained and those students who were recommended for retention and not retained? Because it seems to me and students who are retained are often at-risk to begin with. Therefore, I do not think it is surprising that these students would continue to perform poorly as they progress through school. We hope that another year in Kindergarten will help students to become confident learners, but we can't guarantee that. And how do these studies know that the extra year in Kindergarten did not help at all? It could be that after an extra year, a child still performs poorly in first grade. However, if that same child did not repeat Kindergarten s/he may have done even worse in first grade.

I realize that my post offers no actual opinions or decisions at this point. After reading some of the actual research, I will post again and hopefully have some more conclusive answers. I'd like to have antecdoctal evidence AND research-based evidence to present to parents next year if (or when) I have to suggest retention for their child. Are there other educators out there who can offer some advice on this dilemma? I'd especially like to hear from educators who have looked over research in this area.