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Three Peas in a Pod

Mike Bloomberg’s comments at Monday’s press conference announcing plans to extend a test-based promotion policy to grades four and six were eerily reminiscent of Arne Duncan’s and Joel Klein’s reactions to two reports on social promotion released by the Consortium on Chicago School Research in 2004. The Chicago Consortium, an independent research group studying Chicago schools, examined the effects of promotional gates at the third-, sixth- and eighth-grade levels. (I reviewed one of the draft reports at the request of the Consortium.) The findings were unequivocal: Test-based retention did not alter the achievement trajectories of third-graders, and sixth-graders who were retained had lower achievement growth than similar low-achieving students who were promoted. Implementing the eighth-grade promotional gate reduced overall dropout rates slightly, but clearly lowered the likelihood of high school graduation for very low achievers and students who were already overage for grade at the time they reached the gate.

David Herszenhorn, writing in the New York Times at the time, described a Chicago press conference releasing the reports. He quoted Arne Duncan, then the chief executive of the Chicago public schools, as saying, “Common sense tells you that ending social promotion has contributed to higher test scores and lower dropout rates over the last eight years … I am absolutely convinced in my heart, it’s the right thing to do.” Herszenhorn delicately noted that Duncan made claims about the promotional policies that were not supported by the two reports. “While the report drew no such conclusion,” he wrote, “[Duncan] credited the tough promotion rules for improvements in the system as a whole, including better overall test scores, higher graduation and attendance rates and a lower overall dropout rate.”

In the same article, Herszenhorn suggested that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein had “seemed to push aside the findings.” He cited a statement by Klein that, “The Chicago study strongly supports our view that effective early grade interventions are key to ending social promotion and preparing students for the hard work they will encounter in later grades.” Klein’s statement was patently false: the Chicago studies didn’t examine early grade interventions. Rather, authors Jenny Nagaoka and Melissa Roderick pointed out that a great many students in Chicago were struggling well before the third-grade promotional gate, suggesting the desirability of early intervention with struggling students.

(A critic might wonder what effective early grade interventions the NYC Department of Education has developed over the past five years. Moreover, if these interventions are effective, why is it necessary to extend the promotion policy to grades four and six?)

Fast-forward to 2009. According to Javier Hernandez’ article in Tuesday’s New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg was asked what evidence he had to show that the promotion policy had increased student achievement. Bloomberg said he was speechless. “If you don’t believe ending social promotion is one of the real keys to doing this,” he said, “I don’t know quite how to answer the question.” As is occasionally the case, the mayor’s comment is hard to interpret. Is he saying that if you believe ending social promotion is the desired policy outcome, evidence on its effects is irrelevant? Does belief trump evidence? That’s consistent with Arne Duncan’s claim of what he believed in his heart. Such views run counter to the prevailing trends in education policy, which generally call for greater reliance on evidence of the impact of programs and policies in the policymaking process.

Now, it’s true that sometimes policies are formulated in a vacuum, with little existing evidence on the likely effects of a policy. But that’s not the case here. The Chicago studies are highly suggestive of what might be found in New York, due to the similarities in the promotion policies. Moreover, evidence on the effects of the New York City promotion policy is forthcoming, in the form of a study conducted by the RAND Corporation on behalf of the NYC Department of Education and scheduled to be released in the next few months. If evidence matters, it would be prudent to wait until the results are in before adding grades four and six to the existing complement of promotional gates in grades three, five, seven and eight.

Policy without evidence. Beliefs and “common sense” that ignore facts. Mike Bloomberg, Joel Klein and Arne Duncan: kicking it old school.

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