choices, for the crimes of their children, or for the Fs
earned by their university students. Why are public
school teachers being singled out as the responsible
parties for student learning? Morally and legally, this
makes no sense.
Get rid of value-added measurement. Chip it
away. If you do that, you will be getting closer to a
MYTH 4. Retaining children in
grade helps struggling students catch up and
promotes better classroom instruction for all.
Caring teachers, principals, and guidance counselors
sometimes find themselves in the position of delivering some difficult-to-digest news to parents: Their
child is a slow learner or lacks maturity. To give “the
gift of time,” these educators recommend keeping
the child back so that he or she will have more
opportunity to master reading or mathematics or to
mature as a student. But school personnel who do
this make a horrible blunder.
Research shows quite convincingly that retaining a
student in grade is almost always ineffective, is often
biased, hurts family relationships, and increases
dropout rates (Shepard & Smith, 1989, 1990). Some
high-performing countries, such as Finland, Sweden,
and Japan, ban retention in grade altogether. But
in the United States, we retain about 450,000 students annually in grades 1–8, and tens of thousands
more at the end of kindergarten and in grades 9–12.
Cumulatively, more than 5 million public school
children have been “flunked” at least once (Warren
& Saliba, 2012).
In three major reviews over the decades, comparisons of retained and promoted students overwhelmingly favored the promoted students on measures of
academic achievement, observations of classroom
behavior, and surveys of self-esteem and adjustment
to school. But in one area the retained students
always have the edge: dropping out of school. Students who have repeated a grade once are 20–30
percent more likely to drop out before completing
high school, and students who have been retained
twice are almost certain to drop out (Shepard &
Further, decisions to retain are biased. Retained
students are more likely to have changed schools
frequently; they are more likely to be male, English
language learners, black or Hispanic, from a poor
household, from a single-parent household, or from
a household with low parental education attainment.
Children of middle-class parents are rarely left back
in school (Shepard & Smith, 1989).
Retention simply doesn’t solve the problems
created by children’s immaturity or learning difficulties. Other approaches appear to do better. These
include targeted summer programs and tutoring,
high-quality preschool, and small class size in the
first few grades (Glass, Cahen, Smith, & Filby, 1982;
Levin & Glass, 1987).
Moreover, few children regard repeating a grade as
any kind of “gift.” Children consider being held back
the emotional equivalent of wetting their pants in
school or being caught stealing. They think of only
two events as more distressing: the death of a parent
and going blind (Yamamoto & Byrnes, 1987). The
gift of time indeed!
Given the extra costs of a year of schooling, the
United States may be spending about $55 billion
annually on a policy that doesn’t work well for
the vast majority of the students retained. So it’s
probably fair to ask whether retention in grade is
simply a mean-spirited way to penalize those students who don’t “measure up.” It sure seems that
way to us.
Schools really don’t reduce heterogeneity in
student ability and behavior much by their retention
policies. Cut them out! You’ll have a better school,
and you’ll remove another barrier that less-advantaged students must clear to obtain the benefits
our society offers to its more-advantaged citizens.
MYTH 5. Homework, and lots of
it, boosts achievement.
Homework time, which long ago typically consisted
of a relatively calm 30 minutes after the dinner
dishes were cleared, has now become for many
families a battleground. Children wrench and wail
as parents stare dumbfounded at math problems like
nothing they ever experienced in their school days.
Research shows that the average amount of time
spent on homework has doubled in the last 50 years
(Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Those who
extol the benefits of homework while bewailing
the current state of U.S. public education have a
contradiction to explain away. How could we have