How Bellevue International School Began

Bellevue International School was the sole creation of six visionary teachers, and has consistently ranked in the top tier of schools nationwide...Read more

How Kirkland International Community School (ICS) Began

Kirkland International Community School had no computers the first year, and our students were housed in portables with little shelter from the rain...Yet, by the second year we achieved the highest writing scores on statewide exams...Read more

How Marysville Arts & Technology H.S. Began

"We don't have tennis courts. We don't have a gym. We don't have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."Read more

How Social Promotion Gives a "Pass" to Schools that Fail

Ask any teacher whether social promotion "works", and you will receive a clear answer: It doesn't...Read more

First Test Scores from Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

These scores were achieved by schools that were untried, built on promises, and which had yet to acquire a reputation for rigor and success...Read more

Seamless Curriculum at Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were mere interruptions in one continuous curriculum...Read more

Creating A Powerful Teaching Culture

If the teaching culture is not transformed, then "school renewal" will be an empty promise...Read more

Making it Better vs. Making it New

"Better" and "different" may sometimes be confused as charter schools describe their mission...Read more

Social Promotion Or Instructional Failure?

Scenes from School

It's August, and twenty one administrators and counselors sit in a conference room, poring over the files of thirty one 9th graders who do not have enough credits to graduate. Most of the students have a history of academic non-compliance. Ten to fifteen of them enrolled in summer school to make up the credits, but failed to do the work or didn't attend. We see their dismal records in front of us. A junior high counselor argues against keeping them back: some are just too big; others have intimidated their teachers. A junior high assistant principal offers his own variant of an academic "Hail Mary pass": Perhaps, he suggests, these students will turn over a new leaf when they get to high school? It doesn't seem like a sure bet to a high school counselor. Sending students like these to high school, she says, just hasn't worked out. Four hours pass. The group has dead-ended: all twenty one will be socially promoted to the tenth grade.

Social Promotion: Scenes from School

A 7th grade teacher awards a failing student a "D" grade so that he won't have him in class next time around. For a variety of reasons--not all his own fault--the student is stubborn, under-skilled, hostile to instruction, and continually gravitating towards--or creating--classroom distractions. The 7th grader goes to 8th grade, and the same thing occurs--not only here but at 9th grade as well. At last, the student enters 10th grade with the skills, attitudes, respect for authority and work habits of an underperforming, angry 5th grader. There is little possibility that the10th grade curriculum will be a match for this student's interests or skills.

Scenes from School

A teacher stands with his back to the class, working out problems on the whiteboard. He flings out questions, directed at no one in particular. The arms fly, zigzagging through triangles, rectangles and squares. The more capable students, bunched in the front, socialize loudly, listen to their ipods, and randomly blurt brief--but correct--answers to the teacher's questions. The off task noise is such that the teacher cannot be heard at the back of the room where I am seated for an observation. I tap the shoulder of a female student who sits in front of me. She hasn't been taking notes. I ask her if the teacher's demonstration is clear. She says she hasn't understood a thing for five or six days now. Last quarter, she received a "D." "Have you ever been asked a question or called upon to explain a procedure in class?" The answer is no. The teacher continues to work problems out on the board, demonstrating his skill and deep mathematical knowledge by rapid firing challenging questions that are directed at no one. In a post-observation conference, the teacher expresses his dissatisfaction that 40-50% of his students will fail this class. His colleagues regard him as a master practitioner.

Scenes from School

A teacher shouts for the class to pay attention as he explains a group activity. During the first ten minutes of class he has made fifteen to twenty similar requests--sometimes punctuated with disciplinary threats to offending students. The threats never come to fruition. At this most recent demand for silence, one student turns to look at him while the others continue socializing, but at reduced volume. Satisfied, the teacher now plunges ahead with the explanation. Fifteen seconds after he begins, this single student turns away to laugh about something with her friend. Minutes later--an eternity in this classroom-- the teacher concludes the set-up. He asks no one in particular: "Are there any questions?" Naturally there are none. His exasperation builds as he spends the rest of the period moving from table to table, re-explaining the assignment.

Ask any teacher whether social promotion works and you will receive a straightforward answer: It doesn't.

And it doesn't take university level research to demonstrate that kids who are reluctant, frustrated or angry about schooling will begin to fall behind in the early grades--and that without dramatic transformation of their classroom experiences, they will be unable to "turn it around" when they arrive at the next grade level as well.

Private schools can be selective about which students they accept, but public schools must welcome all who arrive--regardless of their background and level of preparedness.

Have public schools created strategies that meet these students where they are and then take them to where they need to be?

According to many educators, the challenge of doing so is insuperable, thanks to economic and social factors that are beyond anyone's control: poverty is blamed, family cultures are blamed, student attitudes are blamed, racism is blamed, standardized testing is blamed, the quest for teacher accountability is also blamed.

Family, cultural and economic factors may disadvantage some students before they arrive at school. But educator emphasis on macro causes for under-achievement innoculates instructional practices from scrutiny. And these are the very areas, the only areas, which educators can presume to address, examine, improve and amend. Efforts to deflect the focus away from classroom practices is understandable. To focus on teacher skill, content area knowledge, lesson design, personal instructional qualifications--this strikes very close to home.

To be fair, all professions have their weak practitioners. We have all experienced the physician who does not care, or who accidentally jams the cortisone shot directly into a nerve, or who misses an obvious diagnosis. We know that too many police officers are more suited for military missions than for community work. We have heard investment advisers tell us once that Costco was a fad, or that Starbucks had no future because the company did not own the sources for its coffee beans.

It's deflating to come to the realization that our professions are full of "experts," but that not all of them are expert.

But we are talking about schools, not about these other professions. And the fact is that there are more than a few teachers who are not highly qualified in their content areas, or not deeply committed to creating participatory, fully engaged learning experiences for all students.

Whether this is a failure of spirit on their part, or attributable to the poor quality of many teacher preparation programs is an open question. But this much is clear: strong school cultures and high quality teachers can do more to address the Yin/Yang of student failure and social promotion than anything else.

Of course there are amazing, high quality teachers in our schools, and each of us remembers those few who excited us about learning. I have worked alongside teachers like these, and have observed them succeed in the most unlikely school settings and situations. They are heroes who pull the rabbit out of the hat on a daily basis--bringing experiences of light and magic to students who are the verge of discovering the joy of learning and personal accomplishment.

But we also remember the time-servers in the profession who turned learning into a multiple choice test, turned rigor into "rigor mortis", who sat behind their computers composing emails to friends while students goofed off, or who have relied upon dittoes and handouts as the meat and potatoes of their instructional inspiration. These were--and still are--the unwitting motivators for the charter school movement.

In retrospect we begin to think that these teachers are the kind who gravitated to this line of work because after all, teaching was relatively easy to get into--though it can be a punishing occupation once you get there.

And once the contract has been signed, teachers like these enjoy a level of security that far exceeds that enjoyed by employees in the rest of the working world. Some teacher unions make honest evaluation of teacher performance a difficult task. Some school board members may or not be parents, probably have never been teachers, and may not have a mental model for what teaching all students might begin to look like. Some administrators may be promoted because they "insiders" who possess social skills or the ability to avoid controversy--not because they have credible instructional expertise. And finally and most important: authentic, high quality teacher mentoring and remediation programs are rare.

As a result, the system, like most bureaucracies, spirals downward toward doing the easy thing, the convenient thing, the most comfortable thing. Maintaining operations, preserving appearances...

...And prescribing social promotion for students who fail--because the adults in charge have been unable to figure out what else they can do.

And what they do do--socially promote students who fail--is the very thing they should not do. Not only does the practice do harm to students whose resentment and frustration deepens year after year, but it plants the seeds of discontent in future classrooms, making it ever more challenging for next-level teachers to create a learning environment where shared growth and constructive student participation are the norm.

Most tragically, these consequences manifest themselves at the secondary level, where perhaps a third of students enrolled have not been guided by enough of their previous teachers to appreciate how an effective classroom can be a source of inspiration for them. Not enough of their previous classroom experiences have taught them that discovery is a value, or that mildly disruptive behaviors don't pencil out because they will be addressed and effectively remedied.

It is true that some students may never have their needs met by regular public schools--the mentally retarded, the psychotic, those with fetal alcohol issues, and those who struggle with a family history of abuse or personal trauma. Sadly, some students have scars that are so deep that they may be impossible for any classroom teacher to amend.

But we also know that the multitude of our public school students are balanced enough to be curious about new things, as well as to become mentally and socially involved. They're already doing that in their private lives--but a number of them leave their constructive talents at the door when they enter a teacher-centered classroom--or bring an array of non-curricular talents inside and use them to diminish the quality of the learning experience for themselves and for others around them.

So why is it that these students can't be trained, can't be reached? And because they have not caught fire, have not found joy in learning, why must they be promoted to the next grade level without mastering a variety of successful student skills?

Schools that wish to eliminate the need to choose between social promotion and retention must run two curricular programs simultaneously:

The first has to do with curriculum articulation and a mastery learning approach to skill acquisition: The kind of approach that provokes curiosity, that provides daily instances of individual success, and that jump starts the reluctant learners who arrive at school.

The second has to do with creating a school-wide expectation that coaches--and that requires--students to develop attitudes of attentiveness, participation, responsibility and follow through that lead to breakthroughs in achievement.

But merely codifying this expectation alone is not enough. School programs that raise performance standards without ensuring that teachers have the instructional expertise to inspire students to reach them will not achieve their goals.

But when teachers actually do have these skills, and when their classrooms become student-centered places where questions, doubts and new understandings can be authentically shared...then and only then does the circle of accomplishment complete itself.

Rigor for its own sake is a pointless and a failed strategy. Teachers impose it; require it...but if this requirement is not balanced by the promise that each and every teacher learns to engage students in meaningful ways, then it is merely another irrelevant initiative.

But rigor that is augmented by age appropriate, challenging design, by built in skill development epiphanies, by corresponding increases in student awareness of accomplishment and personal achievement--this kind of "rigor" is what is desired.

Retaining students at grade level, if implemented by a failing school that has not taken steps to ensure teacher effectiveness and timely interventions would be harmful and dishonest.

Who has failed to deliver and to achieve? But when an instructional program is effective, when timely intervention procedures are in place, and when the school's classroom cultures are coherent and student-centered, then, and only then, may retention become an effective tool--as a last resort. But social promotion? Not a tool; not an anodyne. Not now. Not ever.

Simple Strategies for Raising Levels of Student Achievement in Classrooms:

So we can't change national policy from behind our teacher desks, though we are certainly entitled to discuss those large issues within the context of our lessons--and should do so when the opportunity arises. After all, we are trying to turn out future citizens who are aware of things, and who can acquire the ability to think, to judge, to evaluate questions of macro importance.

But there are simple things we can do within our classrooms to jump start student thinking and discovery. Here are a few:

In each and every classroom, raised hands (not blurted answers) will be the protocol for all student responses. Raised hands, and the thought provoking silence that accompanies the teacher survey of volunteers--as well as non-volunteers--creates the think-space, wait time and performance pressure necessary for all students to eventually become engaged. Anyone who as observed classrooms as I have knows that this is not typically standard practice.

Instead of inviting blurted (even if correct) responses from the consistently most capable students, the teacher who expects the entire class to become engaged will use wait time and silence as an instigator for thought and reflection. The teacher will consistently check for understanding by always directing questions to specific students--whether their hands are raised or not--rather than directing a question to the class as a whole, or routinely calling upon the same high achieving students time after time.

The teacher's conduct of lessons will always serve the goal of engaging all students--and of deliberately creating classroom spaces that are safe, that provide time for students to think, to ask questions, to express bewilderment, or to re-state (on demand) what fellow students have said as they respond to question.

For example: "Sarah: what did Jeremy just say?" Or: "Steven: Sarah has provided an answer for the question that I just posed. Will you please tell the class what she has just said?" And as a followup or clarifying question: "Do you agree?" "Why do you think this is so?" Or: "What reasons could she have had for saying this?"

Early on, more than a few students who prefer to remain in the background will not perform well when called out. Often they will say "I don't know" which may actually mean "I don't care." This is to be expected. None of their previous teachers held them to account, so dear teacher, what's your problem?

The teacher who wishes to succeed with these students is not offended, and does not make a public display of displeasure. Instead he or she moves into coaching mode--repeating a process of clarification and re-direct many times during the early weeks of class. The hope is that these techniques, supplemented by personal counseling and family inteverntions, can establish trust, reduce the pushback, and begin to turn things around for this especially reluctant student.

An illustration of what I mean: After such a response, the teacher will quickly enough find the right answer from selected students, and then, like a harpy, circle back to directly ask the disengaged one to re-state the correct answer that has been supplied by his peers--and more than re-state, but re-explain the answer. In complete sentences as well. Early on the sentences may be poorly constructed, but each teacher must accept any hint, however slight, of some new attitude of compliance and participation from students like these. But not forever...the bar must be raised continually once they have been lured into, and understand, what is expected.

For me, this is an article of faith: If the classroom atmosphere is respectful, if the teacher can create a climate of trust and acceptance--most reluctant learners will enter into the spirit of the educational adventure in time, providing they have not been hardened beyond a caring teacher's reach. And they will gradually begin to savor the delights of acquiring skills and new knowledge.

But the effort, the persistent effort to make a breakthrough--to kindle the student's curiosity and humanity--this must always be made. This is our mission. Our test as educators.

One of the great challenges in creating effective classrooms seems to be counter-intuitive: Many educators have been trained to award on-the-spot praise to students who participate. The challenge for teachers who want to raise participation levels for all students will be to refrain from instantly answering a student response with words of praise, such as "good," "excellent." When overused, these well meaning, instant commendations do not further the conversation; rather they shut down the possibilities for further exploration or clarification.

Even worse, they create a dependency within the weaker or more reluctant students; a dependency that is based upon the belief that if they do not participate or engage, the teacher will allow their peers to carry the load.

What is the teacher's goal after all? Is it to wave the checkered flag when one student gets the right answer, or is it to foster a process whereby all students can stumble upon the answer as a result of processing information on their own?

Does the teacher want all students to cross the finish line? If so, then the teacher will often have to resist the temptation to give verbal cues that declare the case is closed. Not always; but often. Plenty of time for praise, administered later and judiciously.

In moving to adopt strategies like these, the teacher will gradually begin forsake a self sustaining professional delusion: the mirage of full student participation and rapid progress that is conjured when the instructor listens only to the brightest students who, in an unstructured setting, eagerly carry the full load of student engagement for all the rest.

Such a class may seem "lively" and may generate innumerable correct answers that move the discussion forward, but such an illusion can be achieved only by ignoring students who don't get it instantly, or who need more time to think and process information.

The teacher in an effective classroom must develop patience, and must resist the temptation to move quickly forward before he or she has verified that all students have been tracking the discussion. Full participation and specific performance must be required from each and every student at various points along the way--what I refer to as a "take no prisoners approach" to instruction.

Teachers who wish to engage all students know that student growth and development have little to do with the mere imparting of information in lecture format alone. "We have covered this before" is a statement that indicates the beginning of an instructional problem that can only continue to grow: "covering" a topic or skill is not the same as implementing activities and strategies for mastering it.

The task of creating an effective classroom where all students move forward is difficult. Yet this is what it takes for teachers to lead students beyond where they are to where they have yet to go. Effective practices like these must be in place before a school program can contemplate student retention with a clean conscience.

Students master content and consolidate their skills as young scholars at different rates. But these differently prepared students are present and waiting for instruction within a single classroom--our classrooms.

Time for truth telling: Differentiated instruction can meliorate some of this wide variability--but not all. A single instructor can differentiate only so much--and for some students, this limitation on teacher resources, time and skill will not be enough to close the gap.

Alas, at the end of a frustrating or disappointing instructional year, many students who do not meet standard are nevertheless given "D" grades and promoted to the next level: a level with a set curriculum that ultimately will have to be decelerated in order to manage the bewilderment or misbehavior of the under-prepared.

How frustrating it must be for some of our students to journey, year after year, through a curriculum--or a lax instructional methodology--that is not responsive to their needs.

How frustrating it must be to teach them.

Of what use is it to study "Romeo and Juliet" in a 9th grade class, for example, if a significant number of its students can barely read, think and write complex thoughts in standard English? (See how to meet this challenge) here.

Of what use is it to survey chemical elements, to balance algebraic equations, or to trace the rise and fall of the Turkish caliphate for students who have yet to catch fire, whose curiosity lies dormant, or who have yet to find a personal motivation for paying the kind of attention that leads to mastery?

Why, then, do their teachers promote these struggling students to still higher levels, knowing that they are not interested in or ready to accomplish the tasks that will be set before them?

So far, differentiated instruction has been touted as the remedy for institutional failure of nerve: an unwillingness to tell the truth about where students actually are with reference to the standards, and then irresponsibly promoting them to advanced levels when they lack the skills and personal commitment to successfully perform. But if differentiated instruction, inclusion and mainstreaming within regular classrooms cannot bridge the chasm created by such a mismatch, what is to be done?

Often, a high school's curriculum seems to be set in stone--or is a kind of Procrustean bed that all students are challenged to lie upon--whether the bed fits them or not. It may be time, therefore, to think about creating a different "bed" for a number of the students who arrive at middle and high school unprepared for the first year of instruction.

One remedy might be the creation of high quality, skill-driven entry level sections. Students would be placed in these based upon their performance on a basic competency diagnostic; a well designed examination that assessed whether a student's entry level skills fell within the spectrum of achievement that would be reasonable prerequisites for success.

Is this "tracking," or is it realism? Such sections would be designed to be a "step-up," not a dead end. Their goal would be to equip students to focus, to master vocabularies, to become engaged in learning, and thus to move forward to an accelerated level--not to consign them to a perpetually separate track for under-performers.

Whether the students ever returned to "Romeo and Juliet" or not would be unimportant in the great scheme of things.

Sections like these would be taught by the most gifted practitioners on the teaching staff; not assigned to newcomers, or to chronically underperforming teachers.

At the same time, it would be important to begin to staff existing student support learning centers with highly qualified content area, mainline educators--teachers whose skills would qualify them to teach the most rigorous courses within the school. But to be effective, these staff members must be excellent teachers as described above.

Because the responsibility for student success falls to everyone within the school, it would be necessary to rotate both AP and Honors teachers into these support centers for one of their regularly assigned periods per day. Truly, the weakest students deserve to have access to the best and brightest practitioners on the school's staff.

(It must be stated that there are a few "Honors" or "AP" teachers who are not effective practitioners. Some have acquired this teaching assignment as an accident of seniority, departmental favoritism and so on. Regardless, they can now easily appear to be "successful" because the gifted students who fill their classrooms are already self-motivated, and will reach high levels of achievement whether they are taught well or not.)

Teachers like these would be making a "sacrifice" as they exchange one of their trouble-free, compliant honors or gifted sections for a section of students who are under-prepared; but their students will be called upon to make a major sacrifice as well. If a student is failing several classes all at once, it may be time to reduce the student's class schedule so that he/she can focus on improving in one or two core content areas. (But again with this caveat: Teachers in all classes must be expert at inviting students in, at diagnosing learning resistance, and at finding the means to reach the most reluctant--whose numbers, alas, seem to be growing.)

In lieu of taking social studies, for example, a student may double up on mathematics, enrolling in both the regular math course and in the newly configured, more effective learning support center. Such students will be short of credits, and will have to make these up at summer school, or by extending their graduation date. This short-term pain is preferable to graduating without ever having become educated.

When is retention or repeating a grade appropriate?

Let us assume that highly effective instructional practices are in place within a school--that all teachers meet this standard. If such is the case, then respect for individual student differences and for mastery learning would require that students be retained at curricular levels if they need more time to familiarize themselves with content, or to acquire the skills and work habits that will help them to become life-long learners.

During my tenure at Bellevue International School, Lake Washington International Community School, and Marysville Arts & Technology High School, students were not promoted to the next level of study until they had acquired the skills--and demonstrated the work and attendance habits--that were necessary for success as they moved forward. Both skills and work habits had to be in place for promotion to occur.

School cultures that insist upon these two expectations being met will not allow students to merely "get by," or to deliberately, consciously underperform. In order to preserve the quality of the learning experience at higher levels, students will not be promoted until they have demonstrated the competencies and the attitudes that will be required for constructive participation and success at the next level. Unified staff commitment to the fulfillment of these expectations for each and every student will also prevent the forward movement of a constantly bewildered and restive learner cohort. Hence, there will be no "D" grades. Students must earn a 70% score--a C minus or better--in order to move forward to the next level.

We learned at Bellevue International School and Lake Washington International Community School that repeating a course can bring enormous benefits to students who are truly "struggling." But without timely interventions and academic support at the earliest grades, having to repeat a poorly taught course would be Draconian.

If teachers themselves are "C minus" when it comes to designing the learning activities that are meant to iinspire students to close skill gaps, then retention would be unthinkable.

But retention would be entirely appropriate in a system-wide instructional culture that meets students where they are, and that provides the support they need to "go beyond where they are." And if the students are not "struggling," but rather "slip-sliding," then retention is all the more appropriate. Retention in these cases is one of the last opportunities educators have to alert their students to the realities of effort, economics and the working world.

A school system that practices retention has an obligation to guarantee that its teaching & learning equation is effective and self-renewing.

Curriculum must be intentional, sequential and coherent, and its learning goals must be clearly understood both by students and staff. Most important, entry level course sections must be realistic about student capabilities. Most first level courses should have a skill emphasis--the "step-up" referred to earlier. Artfully designed, skill emphasis courses can challenge even the highest performers; poorly designed, they do not inspire.

In order to maximize success for all students, classroom activities must be appropriately sequenced, and students must be placed at the center of the experience.

Checking for understanding must become a high priority instructional strategy. Each student, in each class, must be held in a state of suspense as to when he/she will be called upon to re-state what has just occurred either in the lecture or the demonstration.

Under conditions like these, students naturally tend to be more attentive and more successful; and success creates an enthusiasm for learning that makes all standards assailable. Do we believe in our students? Do we believe they can do this?

Many secondary content area departments are not currently in a position to accomplish this. So what must be done?

Departments must identify key skills that will be taught and reinforced in each grade, and then carried forward year to year. Each teacher must be held accountable for effectively teaching these clearly identified skills.

Departments must also create an articulated course sequence that stair-steps previous and new learning. Courses would be sequenced and linked together by a graduated skill matrix--much as they are in mathematics classes.

The question then becomes not "when shall we do 'The Great Gatsby,' or cell division, or the Civil War" so much as: What skills shall we emphasize, revisit, refine, extend, apply and reinforce when we do any of these?

Curriculum that is articulated and intentionally designed along skill development lines is the means by which the belief that "all students can learn" can become reality.

Retention may be used as a tool only when such quality instruction is ensured.

Students who nevertheless need more time to acquire these skills in order to meet performance standards must be held back in applicable content area courses for the entire year.

The purpose of such consequences in cases like these is to develop within students the attitudes, aptitudes and talents that they need for success. It is not about short-term credit retrieval or assignment completion.

Students deserve the opportunity to repeat a class in order to "get it," and teachers deserve the opportunity to teach students who are prepared for the coursework that they offer. But teachers all up and down the line have the obligation to be great teachers: teachers, not mere technicians who roll out pre-determined course content.

In order to present themselves as candidates for promotion at the end of each school year, students must demonstrate that they have the requisite skills in order to occupy a classroom desk at the next grade level.

In an effective school system, how could it be otherwise?

If a curriculum is properly constructed with an eye toward essential questions and sequential skill development activities, then students will discover that they are not revisiting "boring" material when they repeat a class. Instead, they are being invited to explore a depth curriculum that still holds many discoveries for them.

Some of our greatest success stories at have to do with students who, for a variety of reasons, struggle and then repeat--and who are ultimately guided to achievements that were within the circumference of their capabilities all along.

The self-esteem that derives from this experience is authentic, and it is earned.

What we have learned is that students who repeat discover that there is a relationship between their effort and their achievement--and therefore learn earlier (rather than later, if ever) to make a more purposive commitment to their school work.

The fact is that all students can learn; we know that.

The other fact is that a lack of motivation or training can often be the greatest impediment to student progress at a specific curricular level. Effective teachers must do their utmost to address these factors in order to inspire achievement in their students.

Teaching and learning become more productive and more enjoyable when students in each class section have earned the right to be enrolled at a particular grade level.

Our goal is to help students earn that right; and to ensure that what we are asking of them is a "reach," but is also within their capabilities.