Middle School

13 min Read

Failure: The new taboo

Martin Fielding is like a lot of dads. He wants the best for his son Andrew. That’s why he attends scout camps, spends his nights helping with homework and shelled out several thousand dollars for extra math tutoring at Oxford Learning.

It’s also why Fielding will ask his son’s Grade 7 teacher to hold him back from moving on to Grade 8 if Andrew’s report card doesn’t improve significantly this year.

“We’re torn between driving the message home to him – that he has to do his
part, complete his homework, turn in assignments and learn this stuff – with worrying about him getting ostracized if he’s held back,” Fielding says. His comments lie at the heart of the centuries-old debate between parents, educators and politicians over how best to help kids who are having trouble in school – should you promote them to the next grade and hope they catch up or should you fail them?

Tough love

In the U.S. the question’s a no-brainer. Grade retention, the new buzzword for old-school monikers such as failing or flunking, has gained momentum in cities such as Chicago where hundreds of third, sixth and eighth graders, who failed standardized tests, were held back as part of a new get-tough approach on kids. The emphasis on increased school accountability has been championed by President Bush’s Republican administration with national policies such as the No Child Left Behind law, which imposes penalties on schools that don’t achieve adequate progress in regular standardized tests. The downside of this policy is that the schools that are penalized are those inner-city schools that can least afford it.

The push to pass

Here in Canada, it’s not so cut and dried. There is no national policy on education and standardized tests that are conducted in several provinces have no punitive measures in place for schools or students that perform poorly. As well, Martin Fielding is like a lot of dads.

Canadian school boards don’t track how many students are held back each year so there’s no hard data to focus political and media attention on how many or how few students are being held back. The data that does exist – last year the York Region District School Board failed six Grade 8 students out of 8,064 across the board – together with anecdotal evidence suggests that in Canadian schools social promotion, the practice of passing kids along with their peers, regardless of performance, is the norm.

Nadine Chambers has been a teacher with the Toronto District School Board for 10 years and has taught at the elementary grades at four schools. She says that “it’s understood that children are going on to the next grade unless a parent really insists on holding them back.”

In a new survey of nearly 1,000 high school teachers in the Durham region, four out of 10 say they feel pushed by principals to pass students, while one in four feel pressured not to give an F.

Susan Brace*, who has taught with the Peel Regional School Board for six years, says teachers are frustrated because “there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism for dealing with problems. There has to be a consequence for not showing up to school or turning in late assignments or for not turning it in at all. But students can only be graded on work produced. So even if they don’t show up or do much work, they can be moved on.”

Andrew, for example, was promoted from year to year with Cs and Ds and it was only when he reached Grade 6 that his parents, worried about his poor work habits and continuous low grades, decided he should be independently assessed at a tutoring centre. What they learned shocked them – their 12-year-old could only do math at a Grade 2 level. Now the Fieldings want to know why their son was pushed through without mastering the basics. “We knew he wasn’t an ‘A’ student but he couldn’t even do multiplication tables. It seems as if it is left up to the parent to try and figure out that their child isn’t ready to move on to the next grade.”

Failure to launch

It’s pretty difficult to find anyone who would argue against having high academic standards. But how do you achieve them? What those who advocate social promotion have on their side of the argument is research – lots and lots of it, and it’s almost unanimous on one major point: holding students back a grade doesn’t work. In fact in some cases, it can even hurt them.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor who has done much work on the subject, says kids who are retained “do a bit worse than students with similar achievement levels who are promoted. And they have a higher probability of eventually dropping out.”

Kim Newlove, a superintendent of education at the Saskatoon Public School Board, agrees that research doesn’t support retention. “The research we’ve been looking at shows that retention is associated with dropping out in later years,” she says. “Very few kids are retained in Saskatoon. Of the 1,100 to 1,300 kindergarten kids, about five are being retained and that’s because of development issues.”

Guang lei Hong, an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who has been studying the effects of grade retention on students, says that simply having kids repeat a grade doesn’t seem to help them. “In some schools it has been shown that retention does work, but that’s because it’s accompanied by extra remedial help and other alternatives, and not simply a repeat of the same material or curriculum.

Why shoot the teacher?

As the parent of an eight-year-old daughter, Emma, who attends a Toronto east-end school, Kate Wallis understands a parent’s worry about their child getting the basic skills for the real world. As a member of the parent council she also understands the frustration that teachers and principals go through every day. She says the school system is missing an important component – teachers don’t teach.

“There’s so much that teachers have to get through with the curriculum that often they don’t have time to do anything other than expose the kids to the concepts. There are three days for fractions and once you’re done with that you move on,” Wallis says. “Some students will pick it up and if they do then they’re fortunate.” Andrew’s parents, for example, have a daughter who loves doing homework and who has no trouble with her classes.

“She’s always wanting to learn more and doing extra stuff. Sometimes it’s to show up her brother but she seems to want to do it. Andrew’s pretty quiet and it’s hard to get him to open up about what’s going on at school.”

Back to basics

For Kim Palazzo, a Toronto
Catholic school teacher who taught Grade 3 for the first time last year
after many years in junior kindergarten, the answer lies in going back
to the basics. “Kids have to be taught their multiplication tables and
their handwriting. Every few years there’s a new bandwagon that people
jump on. There was a time when phonics was done away with, then there
was the ‘whole language’ approach. It seems to go in phases. But really
it’s about the basics.”

Palazzo has also decided that she wants
to go back to teaching junior kindergarten because “it’s a big
foundation year. At the end of it you can already see the kids who are
going to need help. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in jk.”

Newlove says that what needs to be focused on is the instruction a child
receives regardless of whether they are promoted with their peer group
or if they’re retained. “To retain in order to repeat is wrong. It’s up
to us, by golly, to find a different way to teach them. Our
responsibility is to teach kids at the level they’re at. We should focus
on reading if that’s what they need or focus on math if that’s where
they need the extra help.”

Programs like Saskatoon’s Read to Succeed program for Grades 4 to 12 are making a difference. If a teacher
or a principal identifies a child as not reading at the grade level
(usually about two years behind), that student is put into a 90-minute a
day program that focuses on reading. After three years, Newlove says
that they’re so pleased with the success of the program that they’re
starting to present their findings. Students in Read to Succeed classes
showed an average gain of 1.3 Grade Level Equivalency compared to a
previous typical growth of about 0.6 (six months) Grade Level

Whatever the answers may be – making the F-word,
failure, acceptable again or ensuring there’s enough support in
classrooms for teachers to do more work – David and Denise Fielding
know that they will be a lot more vigilant with their younger son Adam
who is in Grade 1. As for Andrew, they vow to do everything they can to
ensure he doesn’t slip through the cracks – even if that means holding
him back. “You love your kids and you want them to succeed so badly.
It’s going to break our hearts to do this, but we love him more.”

*name has been changed

How parents can help their children

Communicate. Stay in touch with your child’s teachers so you know what they’re
studying. Schools usually have websites where parents can find out about
important events and policies. Principal and teacher emails may be
available to parents. Ask to be put on any mailing lists the school may
have. Find out if your child’s school has a website at

Get involved. Join or attend meetings of your school’s parent council; several
provinces have provincial parent boards or advisory councils that report
directly to the Ministry of Education. If you’re strapped for time,
find out who’s on the board and keep in contact with them. Kate Wallis
who is on parent council at her daughter’s school says, “A lot of
parents don’t realize how much they can help. I’m an artist so I’ve
helped out in art class. Just an hour or so can make a huge difference.”

Homework habits. Kim Palazzo, an elementary school teacher says the one thing that all
struggling students have in common is poor work habits, so that’s what
she concentrates on. “If I can change their work and study habits, half
the battle is done.” It’s important to set up a regular time in a
designated area to do homework each evening; even if your child doesn’t
have homework, set aside the time to review lessons or read a book. Ask
the teacher for assignment due dates and record them on a wall calendar.

Alternatives. Provinces and school boards across the country are introducing new
programs in math and reading to help struggling students (contact your
board or talk to your child’s principal about what would work for your
family). Teachers such as Mike Palazzo from the Toronto Catholic School
Board have set up programs that introduce elementary school kids to high

Frontier College also provides reading circles and
homework clubs at elementary schools, libraries and other community
centres. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has a list of
school boards, independent educational institutions and learning centres
at www.oise.utoronto.ca/canedweb/edboards.

Finally, if you
decide that the public system doesn’t meet your needs
www.ourkids.net/school/directory.cfm is a searchable database of private


what readers had to say about kids and homework. Nearly 80% of parents
who responded to our national survey had elementary school children in
grades 1 through 6. Surprisingly,
only 2% of parents think homework should be abolished. And 44% think it should be compulsory for all grades.


33%every day56%is essential to my child’s scholastic success
34%most days36%is somehwat valuable
30%occasionally4%is a colossal waste of time
2%never4%interferes with my child’s extracurricular activities
34%less than one half-hour21%tool ittle time on homework
50%half-hour to one hour16%too much time on homework
14%more than one hour63%just the right amount of time
2%more than two hours  
50%accepts that homework has to be done  
21%enjoys homework  
19%resents homework  
8%is indifferent to homework

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