Graduation without the grades

Social promotion in schools is leaving kids without skills, report says

  • Megan Turnbull

A debate has resurfaced in Manitoba grade schools about whether or not to retain students in a grade if they don’t satisfy the necessary criteria.

In August, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP), an independent think-tank in Western Canada, published a report claiming that social promotion policies – promoting students regardless of academic achievement in order to avoid damage to self-esteem and alienation from their friends – results in students lacking the necessary skills for later life.

Now some professionals are questioning why avoiding the stigma of repeating a grade is more important than graduating students with necessary skills.

“It is not automatic that someone is retained if [for example] they don’t have their math,” said Edie Wilde, assistant superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division. “We ask what the most appropriate environment is for the student.”

Michael Zwaagstra, a Steinbach teacher and city councilor who co-authored the FCPP report, said he thinks that Manitoba schools have moved in the direction of social promotion.

“It is very rare for kids in kindergarten to Grade 8 to be held back a grade and less emphasis on academic standards means that it becomes more an issue of self-esteem than performance.”

The education system should focus on the promotion of self-worth rather than the promotion of self-esteem.

Ken Johns, psychology professor, University of Winnipeg

The FCPP report concluded that there are times when retention is appropriate if a student has not fulfilled the required effort. Similarly, if a student falls just short of the standards but shows signs of promise, promotion is likely the answer. It warned against strict social promotion policies in Canadian schools.

In 1992, the Seven Oaks School Division published a book that chronicled students that were devastated by being held back a grade. The book, The Faces of Failure, is still used as a reference for the division, Wilde said.

“The number one negative effects of retention are the damage to self-esteem and the decrease in the level of self-worth,” she said. “We do not have an across-the-board social promotion policy. We take an individual/family approach to the decision rather than a systematic one.”

Ken Johns, a psychology professor at the University of Winnipeg, believes that the grading system as a whole has very little tangible benefit. He argues that retention hurts the self-esteem because the student is looked down upon, while unjustified promotion causes the over-inflation of that esteem.

“The education system should focus on the promotion of self-worth rather than the promotion of self-esteem,” said Johns. “Self-esteem is an outside opinion of the individual while self-worth is the measure of the actual person.”

Kindergarten to Grade 8 should be a kind of day care with educational opportunities and high schools should require standards of admittance like post-secondary institutions, he said.

Published in Volume 64, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 17, 2009)

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