sopromoWriting in the Chicago Reader, columnist Ben Joravsky makes a provocative point about social promotion, the process by which schools pass students on to higher grade levels regardless of whether they have mastered the material in a particular grade:

About 70 percent of the kids who start high school in Chicago now end up finishing. That certainly leaves room for improvement, but it’s far better than it once was.

The rising graduation rates are connected to Freshman on Track, a program which is basically a central-office mandate that teachers and principals do whatever it takes to make sure that no ninth-grader receives a failing grade in any subject.

That’s because Fs discourage students and make them think there’s no point in staying in school. As a result, Fs are generally the first step to dropping out.

And if you think, as I do, that there’s more to be gained by keeping kids in school than by nudging them out, you should do what you can to promote them. Even if their mastery of any given subject is a little sketchy.

“Such tolerance,” Joravsky continues, was until recently “widely vilified as ‘social promotion’ by the people running our city.”

Joravsky’s argument is very simple: it is good for children to stay in school as long as possible, and whatever makes school a more enjoyable experience for children is good. Imposing consequences (bad grades) for poor performance makes children not want to remain in school, so that should end. In addition, educators should look for ways to make education more fun.

It all sounds so nice, until you think about it a bit. I trust that Joravsky and I both want the same things for our nation’s children: for each child to get the best possible education. Unfortunately, Joravsky’s proposed solution tends to blame the victims and exonerate the people responsible for the problem.

First, the problem is not that children have been promoted when “their mastery of any given subject is a little sketchy,” as Joravsky puts it. They are in fact regularly being promoted with little to no mastery of the subject matter whatever. Such a policy lets bad teachers and bad schools evade what should be the natural consequences for their failures, and it undermines students’ motivations by disconnecting achievement from reward. That is the very opposite of what schools should be doing, especially for underprivileged children who do not get these lessons at home.

Second, social promotion just happened to be the policy in place while student achievement declined significantly in the past half-century. Clearly, they have both been caused by a third phenomenon: the move away from education basics toward fuzzy math and reading techniques and other fads. This decline of education standards has been widely documented, notably by E. D. Hirsch.

Three, the records show that what young people knew and could do academically upon graduating high school a century ago was much greater than what they know and can do today, but a much smaller percentage of the nation’s population graduated high school then. Higher standards resulted in lower graduation rates. However, a century ago those high school dropouts were easily able to find jobs, and not because the economy was more manufacturing-oriented (though it was) but because there was much less government interference in the economy.

Meanwhile, nutrition, child-rearing practices, and other important determinants of academic success have risen, for the great majority of people, far above what they were a century ago. The obvious explanation for the failure of today’s children to meet the older standards is that today’s schools simply are not doing the job. Blaming the children and their parents is a blatant cop-out on the part of the education establishment—but sophistry is what our professional educators are best at.

As to the multitude of young people whose family backgrounds seem to create a huge impediment to successful education, those conditions have been created in large part by the welfare state, which remains a huge element of American life, a process documented by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the mid-1960s. Of course, people brought up in poverty have been known to succeed both in school and in life, but it certainly makes no sense for government to undermine family formation and stick children in what are basically “jazz schools” in which educators indulge in whatever nutty fads seem to them to be the most fun for the children and the least annoyance for the teachers.

Both the schools and the nation’s economy are suffering from the same problem: government continually divorces achievement from rewards, in ways both big and small. Social promotion is one of those methods, and it has had the exact effect any sensible person would expect: higher graduation rates, and countless children leaving high school uneducated. Social promotion remains a bad solution to a problem caused entirely by government.

For people to thrive, both the schools and the welfare state must be reformed radically. Until then, we shouldn’t be surprised when the bureaucracies exploit both new and old ways of excusing their failures and blaming the victims while pressing for even more power for themselves. Social promotion is a fine example of the process.