In the past couple of days, two people referred to the practice of social promotion, or age-based promotion, as a less-than-ideal practice. As a teacher I have mostly advocated for my students to be advanced to the next grade.
A commonly cited reason for holding students back is that they haven’t mastered the academic material. “How does a student reach 6th without knowing multiplication tables?” But this would only be true if the sole reason for attending school was to master academics. While academics might be the primary reason to go to school, it is only one of many reasons that we want students to attend school.
Students, especially struggling students, need age-appropriate social interactions and models to show them how to interact with each other. Also, the classroom teaches many soft skills that we tend to discount the value of. Social interaction (interacting with different groups- peers, adults, authority figures, the opposite sex, support personnel), accepting failure and loss gracefully (sports and other contests), teamwork and project management (group projects) are just some of the life skills that students learn in school that they need for adulthood and employment.
Anybody who discounts the value of these soft skills hasn’t waited endlessly for a tailor or contractor, who has changed the due date 4 times already, to get their order finished. Or watched pavers lay a road, and telecom workers tear it up the following day. Or watched graceless celebrities pander to their petty natures and wrangle with each other in public.
In the age of the internet, knowledge is cheap, and doesn’t hold the value it once held when scribes lovingly and with great urgency copied texts by hand to preserve and disseminate information. Its very ubiquity has decreased the urgency of acquiring information. While academic knowledge is a huge necessity for the college-bound, it is of much less impact for the other section of the student body. Age-appropriate soft skills acquisition is the very thing that such struggling students need, and this can only be accomplished within a group of peers. When they demonstrate weakness in one area, then it becomes even more important to bolster their skills in the other area.
Besides, do I really want my 14 year old daughter on a school campus with 19 year old boys? We need to give students the skills they need, not what we decide they need, at the appropriate age.
After all, no tailor needs to know the name of the element with atomic weight 28. He or she does, however, need to be able to plan sufficiently well in order to estimate the pick-up date for his customer. And, curiously, the same student who never mastered multiplication tables, can now magically figure out the cost of tailoring four blouses.