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Superintendents say holding back students rarely a good idea

The K-12 commission heard no shortage of concerns about a “no fail” practice in Manitoba public schools during the education review, but superintendents insist holding struggling students back is rarely in their best interest.

Last month, the province released the commission’s final report, which addresses subjects ranging from school governance to grade retention.

There are no policies that require educators to promote students to the next grade if they do not meet learning outcomes; in fact, the Public Schools Act prohibits school boards from enacting policies that require principals to pass students.

Incomplete grades at the elementary school level, however, are rare.

“Our notion of what’s grade level is really an average, and there’s a span of abilities and achievement in any class of kids,” said Brian O’Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.

“If someone is struggling to learn to read, we need to really pile on the resources and the attention to help them be successful, but to keep that kid in Grade 1 for an extra year is not going to help that kid one bit.”

O’Leary cited research, which the K-12 report outlines, that indicates retention is not an effective approach to improve student learning, and it hurts student progress in the long term.

Retention has been found to both negatively impact achievement in literacy and numeracy, as well as self-esteem and attitudes towards school. There is also a “strong correlation” between retention and the probability of dropping out of school, the K-12 report states.

“For most kids, it actually creates a lifetime stigma and it actually doesn’t help them learn more or better than they did before,” said John Wiens, dean emeritus of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education.

In the odd case where a student in Seven Oaks does have to repeat a grade, it’s likely because they have a late birthday and thus, need time to mature, O’Leary said.

Principals, in collaboration with teachers, parents, and other school specialists, are ultimately in charge of granting grade promotion and credits.

“We appreciate the professional judgment of our teachers and our principals — just as I, as a patient of a doctor or a nurse, place great confidence in (their) professional judgment,” said Ted Fransen, superintendent of the Pembina Trails School Division.

Fransen said the belief in Pembina Trails, which is not dissimilar to other divisions, is that children are best served learning alongside their peers with rich support.

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Meantime, Christian Michalik, superintendent of the Louis Riel School Division, links concerns about academic rigour in Manitoba to narratives about lagging test scores. (While the province suggests Manitoba students are behind their peers elsewhere, critics say high poverty rates must be taken into consideration.)

“I would encourage parents who have this sense that maybe folks aren’t rigorous enough in their expectations, the community, the teachers that make up this thing called school (to) engage with your child’s teacher,” Michalik said.
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