There’s no easy way to put this, so I might as well come out and just say it: Mr. Donley appears to be very confused.1 Unfortunately this is only to be expected from the silver bullet crowd who invariably see all problems as susceptible to simple solutions, solution simple solutions that they, of course, have at the ready.
Social promotion has been a concern for years 2, but it is not the source of the problem. The reason for social promotion is that we have a system largely based on age based cohorts. And for most of a students school years, and removal from their age cohort is a kin to branding the child as “defective”.
Many educators have pointed out ways to address retention and social promotion 3 and underlying may of those recommendations is the fact that if schools moved to a skill based system as opposed to an age based system, artifacts like social promotion would disappear, especially as the granularity of the skill based modules is increased. In fact, some of the more successful programs on view in schools attempt to exploit just such options, like Walk to Read 4, where students are grouped across classrooms for reading instruction.
Certainly there are challenges to any educational system. A typical criticism of skill based cohort management is that this is simply “tracking”5 and that tracking breeds elitism. Gross tracking could clearly lead in that direction, but effective course management and the distribution of children make it pretty clear that such results might only be seen for 3 of a thousand children, all of whom would have been entitled to IEPs as exceptional children until the likes of Mr Donley “fixed” the Alaska Statutes.
But changing the cohort system is not just a different “silver bullet”; it is not a comprehensive solution. Not only do we need to change the cohort system to focus on instruction (instead of focusing on “management”) but we also need to implement early childhood and Pre-K surveillance, assessment, and service, as well as clinical intervention to address fundamental inadequacies in literacy and numeracy. It is not like we can hide our heads in the sand any more; we KNOW that early deficiencies in reading WILL result in likely trauma, incarceration, etc.6 Spend the money now, or spend the money later.
Lastly, let me note that this is not likely a sudden inspiration on Mr. Donley’s part. With the election of the current Governor, we will be seeing a bill along the same lines introduced in the legislature . 7 I don’t want to fault Republican legislators for being concerned about education; but endorsing a corporate package unsupported by actual research is a recipe for disaster.