In a far-reaching change in culture and strategy, teachers in Memphis City Schools will no longer be allowed to flunk children from prekindergarten through third grade.
It doesn't matter if the child misses weeks of school at a time or has trouble doing the work.
In an extension of the same new policy, children in fourth through eighth grades can be held back only once. Also, officials are replacing "A" through "F" grades for elementary school students with assessments of whether the children meet expectations.
The changes, which take effect this school year, represent a realization that the way children have been traditionally graded is punitive and often based on what is easiest for the teacher, school spokesmen say.
"Prekindergarten through grade 3 is the most fundamental, the most essential developmental period in a child's educational experience," said Deputy Supt. Irving Hamer.
"To retard by that retention is completely wrong-headed," he said, describing retention as a crushing blow to a child's self-esteem.
Instead, teachers will build a spreadsheet for every student in the City Schools, documenting attendance and classroom achievement and using the data to make sure children learning at grade level stay the course and those falling below get immediate intervention, including summer school, self-paced online tutorials or the help of college-age tutors during the school day.
"Not all interventions work for every child," Hamer said. "If one thing doesn't work, we'll try something else."
School officials believe Memphis is the only large urban school district using this approach.
The Board of Education this summer approved more than $3 million on literacy and math support materials for students in kindergarten through grade 3.
"If we can change the way this city looks at these first four years of school, we have a shot at improving," Hamer said. "We cannot continue to do what we've been doing. It's incredibly compelling that it doesn't work."
About 2.4 million U.S. students are held back every year. Researchers say the rate has been rising for 25 years.
More boys are retained than girls, and minority students are retained more than white students, creating questions about how objective the process is when it is not tied to test scores.
"Generally, children who are retained never catch up," said school board member Freda Williams. "They get the same curriculum again. If there are other challenges the child is facing, and they are not addressed, the child is held back for no good gain."
In Memphis, both a poor and a majority African-American city, about one-third of the 105,000 City Schools students have been retained at least one year, creating a backlog of students, many of whom never graduate, Hamer said.
The problem starts early. Half of the 8,000 children who entered kindergarten three years ago didn't make it to third grade.
In the entire third-grade class last year, 17 percent -- about 1,500 children -- were detained.
Hamer says the decision often was made by a single teacher, "using everything you can imagine except good assessment data."
"There was no criteria, no guidance (in the district) on why children were retained and no limit on how many times," he said. "It is possible to get to the eighth grade and have been retained three times."
Not only does the situation contribute to high dropout rates and in-school discipline problems and fights, but at a cost of $10,366 per year to educate one student, it's an enormous cost to taxpayers, Hamer said, especially if the student ultimately drops out.
While most research shows that holding a child back in the early grades does little to increase their long-term academic achievement, social scientists disagree on the short-term nuances, noting that some children outperform even older children after repeating a grade.
"We have pieces of this mapped out from high-quality research, but there are gaps in the crossword puzzle," said Lars Lefgren, economics professor at Brigham Young University.
"You have to look at the pieces and take a guess what the whole picture looks like. People disagree on the outcomes," Lefgren said.
While principals in Memphis agree that research shows little long-term gain from retaining students, they say they are not clear on what the intervention strategies will be.
"If the schools in Memphis are determined to identify students who are struggling and apply different interventions, it's possible it could do the trick," said Jay Greene, endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
"Unfortunately, the track record on this approach is not that good," he said.
Parents are being told of the new policy in parent meetings early in the first nine-week grading period.
By the start of the second grading period, the new practice will be in place.
"I'm not sure what to think. The questions of how the new system will work, why it's being changed and what the school system is trying to achieve were all mostly unanswered," parent Marshall Hollis wrote in an e-mail after a meeting last week at Grahamwood Elementary. "I definitely trust the school's teachers and principal, and I'm positive that they will do the best possible under the new guidelines, but I'm just not sure what benefits, if any, are created by the new system."
This is quickly becoming a gigantic issue here in Memphis. I thought I'd try to see what some perspectives are from people outside this local politics three-ring we've got going on.
And OT: We're having a special mayoral election in October. The debates were on this past Thursday. Just to give you a hint at how things go here: One man running is pro-wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler. Another is Prince Mongo, who stated at the debate he wanted to give every Memphian an Uzi. ...That is all.