At the time, I did not understand what the fuss was about. In retrospect I realize his parents were deeply distressed that their only child would be stigmatized by having to repeat a grade. They were equally worried that being surrounded by children younger would stunt his emotional growth.
These parents were not alone in their concerns. Others were equally vociferous in their conviction that demoting a child had dire consequences. What is more, the teachers agreed. They too were lobbying for what was called “social promotion.” Children were to be advanced a grade, not because they mastered the materials of the earlier one, but because they were a year older. The theory was that acquiring social skills was even more important than attaining academic ones. Thus, to leave a child behind was to inflict an indelible scar. It marked him or her as a loser who would be ridiculed by age-mates as “dumb” and shunned by classmates as too “big” to belong.
As a consequence, school policies were changed to keep students with their age peers. In the end, all were moved along irrespective of what they knew. Ultimately, when they graduated from high school, as many did, they could neither read nor do simple arithmetic. A diploma ostensibly certified that they were educated, but anyone who knew them realized this was not true.
Today, many states are about to launch on an updated version of the social promotion, only this time at the college level. (Here it is called Complete College Georgia.) Once more, the experts and concerned parents are essentially urging us to move students along for their own good.
What is being proposed (and in some cases enacted) is that states fund universities in terms of their number of graduates as opposed to their number of attendees. This is supposed to make schools accountable. They are, in effect, being told to demonstrate their effectiveness before they are bankrolled.
This, at least, is the theory. But put yourself in the place of a college administrator. You need more money to underwrite your programs, but the only way to loosen state purse strings is to raise your graduation rate. So what do you do? Why, you lower the standards required to graduate.
Higher education, indeed, education in general, has witnessed an alarming grade inflation. Individuals who were once C students are now pocketing A’s as if these were jellybeans. A sense of entitlement has taken hold such that many mediocre learners fancy themselves embryonic geniuses.
So now, in the name of improved quality, we are about to see educational criteria take another nosedive. In fact, this is already happening. A colleague of mine who teaches at state university up north tells me when his students cannot read; they have the tests read to them. Not only this, but they have the questions explained to them.
This then is supposed to be progress. No doubt we will shortly be treated to hordes of college graduates who also can neither read nor do simple arithmetic. Our universities are clearly in trouble. Indeed, ordinary citizens are beginning to ask if they are worth the cost. What, they enquire, is the point when their graduates know less than fifth graders?
No wonder that my colleagues and I question the foresight of this brave new world of “rationalized” finance. We, who daily struggle to maintain the value of what we teach, shudder at finding ourselves, and our students, sold out in the shadows of a legislative night. Let us remember that even good intentions can have unintended consequences.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.