The Gift of the Three Year Option

The Gift of the Three Year Option

It was early January.  A time fraught with concern for some of our students due to our annual promotion/retention conference assignment.

“Ms. Taylor, can I talk to you in the hall for a minute?” Khadoul’s eyes were full of tears as I said, “Sure, what’s up?”

“Ms. Taylor, I’m filling out that chart, and … well … I’m on the path to retention.”

“Yes, Khadoul, you are.  In fact, according to our school policy, you’ve already earned retention, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” Khadoul replied looking down at the ground.

“But, Khadoul, you know that we never make retention decisions at this point in the school year.  That’s why you’re filling out those charts, so you can clearly see your situation.  When you have your conference with a teacher, we will set goals together, so that you still have an opportunity to be promoted.”

“You mean like if I get all Bs or something?”

“Right.  Just like that.  But, let me suggest that while I think you are fully capable of earning all Bs, that might be too challenging of a goal since currently you’re failing everything. That’s something you’ll have to work out during your conference.”

Seventh grade is a transition year in Cincinnati Public Schools.  Almost all students begin a new program in a new building.  Expectations and procedures change, rigor increases, and there is a much greater focus on the development of personal responsibility.  This is often a challenge for seventh graders, and it requires what Maria Montessori would have called the “normalization” of the student to the new expectations of the secondary classroom.

While some students do make this transition seemingly effortlessly, most experience a somewhat rocky period of adjustment.  However, by the second half of the school year, it is expected that students will have stabilized both academically and behaviorally.  Unfortunately, all too often this is not the case, and it is why one of the first assignments after winter break is preparing for the promotion conference.

All students must fill out a graphic organizer reflecting on their progress to date in relation to academics, behavior, and leadership.  Then they have to write a claim statement as to whether the evidence they’ve provided currently indicates that they should be promoted or retained. (That document is linked here.)

It is, of course, inspiring to meet with students who are doing well, and to hear them cite the academic, behavioral, and leadership evidence that indicates all that they have to be proud of.  These are celebratory conferences.

And sometimes, there are amusing conferences, too.  This year I had to literally bite my tongue to keep from bursting out in laughter at the academically successful student who very somberly told me that he thought his behavior warranted retention because during second quarter he had too many redirections for talking to his friends in class.  Oh, dear, sweet, Camden, this is simply developmentally appropriate behavior, and while it is our job as your guides to curb it in you, it is not grounds for retention!

Occasionally, although far less often than one would anticipate, we also have conferences where students argue that they should be promoted despite all the evidence to the contrary.

But it is most humbling to sit at the table across from a student, like Khadoul, who is arguing for his own retention based on the data he has collected.  It is remarkable how often this raw honesty happens.

Khadoul had clearly understood that the evidence he had reported indicated that he was “on the path to retention.”

Gamble’s promotion policy for middle school students is as follows:

If a student fails two or more quarters of two or more core classes, they will be retained in their present grade.  Students in jeopardy of retention may also be required to meet with the team and parents to develop an individual promotion plan.  Students remain in middle school until the teachers can certify competency on the academic standards as reported through their grades.  In order to be ready for high school, some students may require more than two years of preparation in middle school.  Terms such as “failing,” “flunking,” or “sticking” have no meaning in Montessori schools.

 Maria Montessori wrote about secondary education as bringing about the valorization of the adolescent.  However, students cannot begin working toward valorization until they have first become normalized, which is her word for the stabilization into the classroom environment that ideally occurs during elementary school. However, at Gamble, many of our students arrive in the seventh grade without yet having become normalized.

We tackle this in a variety of ways both in the classroom and also through the critically important experience of fall camp.  We hope that this normalization process has been largely completed by the end of the first half of the school year so that students can successfully embark on the big work of secondary curriculum and healthy adolescent development.  However, this is not always the case.

All too often, we have to require our students to participate in what my colleague, Alanna Maloney, brilliantly references as “the gift of the three-year option.”

She describes it like this:

“Because of the environment and community we have at Gamble, we have an opportunity to do something that isn’t typical. Here retention is not shameful and provides students with the ability to become leaders in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise experience.  The government says that middle school should be two years, but Maria Montessori says to follow the child, and many of our children need three years to be fully ready to be academically independent and to develop self-reliance, self-advocacy, and self-efficacy. Early adolescence is the equivalent of a pupae stage, and not all children move through it at the same rate.”

Despite knowing the truth in this, I have been deeply conflicted about the issue of retaining students.  The data I have collected indicates that my team retained 15-20% of students each year from 2013 through 2016. That is a lot of students who are considered unsuccessful.

However, because of our concerns about this data, each year, we put new supports in place and reassessed our grading policy. We added layers of differentiation, increased after-school help sessions, and developed a grading policy (over several iterations) that didn’t punish students for late work and provided full credit for formative work that evidenced good effort. This grading policy also made it mathematically impossible for students to fail if they completed all of their assignments.  Essentially, as a result of these shifts in practice, students can only fail due to a failure to complete assigned work.

And yet, despite these additional supports, for year after year there remained no change.  I was beginning to believe that this was a non-impactable reality. That, essentially, perhaps due to the nature of adolescence, perhaps due to the challenges that many of our students face, perhaps due to anomalies of the school district we were in, we would always enroll approximately 18% of students who would be unable to rise to the rigors of our program in the first year.

But then last year the trend shifted – only 10% of our students earned retention.  We were jubilant.  Perhaps we had finally broken the pattern that had been so vexing to us.

Ah, but not so fast!  In January of this year, when we prepared for our annual promotion conferences, we had 23 students who were at risk of retention. That’s 38%.

We have recently met individually with each of them, and then met a second time together with their parents for a student-led conference.  During these conferences, we set achievable goals to help them change their trajectory.  There is still time for them to change the outcome. However, it does not seem likely that we will experience nearly the same rate of success that we did last year.

Recent research has indicated that “grit,” or persistence in the face of challenge, is the number one indicator of school and life success.  This concept of grit is related to the development of a work ethic, or demonstrating the self-control required to prioritize what needs to be done over what one wants to do.  What kind of favor do we do students if we send them a message that the work we are asking them to do isn’t really important enough to require of them?  What kind of favor do we do them if we send them on to the next level without expecting them to demonstrate academic or developmental readiness?

This position is supported by research that suggests that promoting unprepared students does little to increase their achievement or life chances.[1]

This practice is generally known as “social promotion” and although it is widely prevalent, it is also unpopular.  “Public opinion is strongly behind ending social promotion. About three-quarters of parents, and more than 80 percent of teachers and employers, think it is worse for a child struggling in school to be promoted to the next grade than to be held back. Only 24 percent of parents and 15 percent of teachers think it is worse for a student to have to repeat a grade.”[2]

And yet the research on retention is pretty clear.  At best, it shows a neutral result.  At worst, it indicates deleterious impacts of retention both academically and socially, and a significantly increased school drop-out rate for students who have been retained.[3]

There is some cause to question these results, as noted here. “To the extent that much of the evidence available on a topic suffers from a common flaw, however, a consistency of findings should not increase confidence in their validity.  In the case of grade retention, the central challenge facing researchers is to distinguish the effect of being retained from the effects of those factors that triggered the retention decision in the first place.”[4] These pieces are likely impossible to tease apart from each other.

If social promotion is damaging and retention is damaging, then teachers and students are seemingly caught in a Catch-22 when working with students who are not demonstrating academic success.

However, the same article that noted the preponderance of research indicating negative outcomes for retained students, also noted that, “a major weakness in the research on retention is documenting the educational experiences of students who are retained.”[5]

This allows for the possibility that the way in which schools handle retention may lead to different outcomes.  It seems that Alanna may be on to something.  Could Gamble Montessori’s program make retention outcomes different at our school?  Maybe.  Certainly it helps that we have multi-aged classrooms, and that students stay with the same community group and the same teachers for both the 7th and the 8th grade.

To try and answer this question, I went back and reviewed the retention lists from my teaching team for the past four years.  Granted this is a very small sample size that is not randomized and does not include a control group.  This is not research; it is data collection and analysis.

Over that time span, we retained a total of 31 students. Of these 31 students, only 4 were retained in the 8th grade.  Exactly zero percent of these retained 8th graders demonstrated improved academics or behavior in their second 8th grade year. One of them left Gamble, and the other three continued along the same trend they had experienced the year before.  Interestingly, all four of these retained 8th graders could have been retained in the 7th grade, but, for a variety of reasons, all were socially promoted for 7th grade.  Although Cincinnati Public Schools indicates that 8th grade is a “retention year,” while 7th grade is not, I have never understood how or why this statement has been made.  In fact, the data I have shows the opposite to be most effective.

Over the course of the same 4 years, we retained twenty-seven 7th grade students.  Eleven of these students (or 44%) chose to leave the school, perhaps seeking relief from the retention as choosing whether to honor or override a recommended retention is at the receiving school’s discretion.  We will never know what impact retention had on the performance of these students.

Like the retained 8th grade students, three of the retained students who stayed at Gamble (11% of the total) showed no improvements.

However, eleven of the students, or 79% of those who stayed at Gamble, demonstrated notable gains.  Work ethic and leadership improved, as did the ability to follow routines and procedures.  Does growth in 79% of students justify our decisions?  I’m not sure.  (To be clear, this number represents 44% of total students retained.) Would these students have similarly improved had they been socially promoted rather than retained?  Without a crystal ball, this is something we will never know for sure.

However as Alanna notes in her conversations with parents, at Gamble being retained in the same grade is not the same experience as it is at other schools.  Here are some of the ways we are different.

  • Multi-age classrooms normalize age and skill differences
  • Spending a minimum of two years with the same group of students and the same teachers creates stability and connection
  • Because students stay in the same classrooms with the same teachers, routines and procedures remain consistent, so students with organizational or study skill challenges tend to perform better in subsequent years
  • High levels of differentiation allow students to work at multiple levels; students who need a third year can choose simpler work in order to be more successful, or more complex work to keep them from being bored with the repetition
  • A focus on leadership allows those who spend three years with us to emerge as some of our strongest students in this regard

I can’t know with certainty that these pieces are enough to balance the negative impacts of retention.  I worry about the potential costs every year – at essentially the same level as I worry about the negative impacts of social promotion.

The best I could do for insight into the experience of retention was to ask some of the students who we had retained.

Each of them described the emotional difficulty of learning that they would not be promoted to the next grade.

“I was sad and angry.  I thought that it was all my fault and that I didn’t try hard enough.”

“When I got retained, I felt angry at myself because I knew that wasn’t me at all.  My grades were terrible … I knew that I was getting retention and I did.  That was the worst day of my life.”

“At the moment, I saw it coming, and I was upset (obviously), but I knew I wasted time, and I shouldn’t have not done the work.  I knew that I made the wrong choices.”

These were clearly very difficult moments in the lives of these young people.  It was also difficult for their families.  One student’s father called me and insisted that she shouldn’t be retained.  He indicated that if we followed-through with the retention, he would move her to a different school.  I shared with him how connected his daughter was to our school and to our community.  I explained why I felt it was important that she experience a second seventh grade year.  I told him how much of a mistake I thought it would be for her to make a school transition at this tenuous time in her life.  We ended the conversation without resolution, and all summer I worried that she would not return.  But she did, and this year she is a wildly successful Freshman.  Here is what she says about the value of the experience.

“Being retained made me better and my grades better.  I learned how to stay out of trouble and get my work done.  I started to see progress in myself.  I think I could have gotten pushed through to the eighth grade, but overall it [being retained] was a benefit.  I got to learn more skills, and it didn’t really hit until the third year that I needed to stop doing certain things.”

I remember a conference with another student and her mother.  It was held at the parent’s request shortly after the decision to retain was made.  Both the student and the parent were in tears.  They begged to allow her to be promoted.  There were pleas and bargaining, but we remained resolute.  Here are her reflections in hindsight.

“Now I feel like it was a good thing.  I know now not to take things as a joke or to be so childish about school.  The first seventh grade year I didn’t learn much or pay attention. I did whatever I wanted to.  The second year I did a lot better, and I took it seriously.  I came back not acting the same.  I think it helped me understand that school’s important.  I didn’t think at the time that it was helpful.  I was really worried about being in a different age group or getting judged for being retained.  Now I do think it’s helpful because if I were to move on from that grade with the same work ethic, my grades wouldn’t look like they do now.”

These are individual success stories.  I don’t yet have enough comprehensive data to indicate with certainly that our policies and procedures regarding promotion and retention decisions are effective.  However, there seems to be something related to de-stigmatizing retention and waiting on the readiness of the child that can yield powerful results like those described above.

This is the gift of the three-year option.

Just as Khadoul had noted in our hallway conversation, at his promotion conference he advocated for his own retention.  This was a hard conference because while it is true that he has failed all of his core content classes for the entire first semester, he has made incredible behavioral progress.

Khadoul’s behavior in elementary school was so problematic that his former principal warned us about him in advance.  When I showed Khadoul his discipline record from elementary school, he was shocked. I just kept on scrolling as his eyes grew wide ad his jaw seemed to very-nearly hit the floor.

His time with us hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing.  In fact, he was involved in a fight on the bus on the very first day of school!  However, for the past four months, his behavior in our classrooms has been so stable that he has needed nothing more than occasional redirections to manage himself.  And on field experiences, he is amazing.  He goes above and beyond being helpful.  He is a leader in every way.

And yet, he hasn’t managed to get it together and get his work done at a level that would warrant promotion.

As promised, I set a goal with him to help him achieve that.  He again suggested earning all Bs or higher.  I indicated that I thought this was a challenging goal.  We agreed on earning all Cs or higher, or passing all his classes and also attending after-school help nights three days a week every week.

Khadoul readily agreed to this, and when I reminded him that I had recently promised to send an email on his behalf to his 6th grade teachers, he immediately started listing the former teachers who he wanted to hear about him.

This is what we wrote.

“Hi wonderful 6th grade teachers,

I am writing to let you know that I just had our required promotion conference with Khadoul.  While his grades have been problematic this year, he has set a goal for improvement, and has so far been working toward this goal.

More importantly, his behavior and leadership have shown incredible growth and improvement.  On field experiences especially, Khadoul is one of our strongest leaders in the community.   He is always willing to step up and take on extra tasks or help others.

In the classroom, he has developed respect for his teachers, his peers, and himself.  We are so proud of the gains he has made.  He wanted you to know of his progress, as he thought you would be proud as well.”

His face lit up with pride when he read their responses.

“YAY!!!!!!!!  I’m so excited and proud of him. He struggled at the beginning of last school year and made some great strides near the end of 6th grade. I’m so happy that he thought to ask you to tell us. I love these types of updates. Let him know I said keep up the great work!”

“Thank you so much for sharing this great news with us!  I’m very proud to hear of his progress and his leadership. I know he is capable of great things!  Keep updating us with good news! Love it!”

Khadoul, like all of our students, has so many people rooting for him. It is all of our hope that he will pull it together during this eleventh hour and demonstrate academic progress.  But if he can’t, we will all still be rooting for him, and we will embrace and nurture him during that additional middle school year, so he can positively experience “the gift of the three year option,” emerge from this pupae stage, and fly on to high school.

The goal, of course, is to prevent the need for either retention or social promotion in the first place (See previous posts on differentiation, growth mindset, and grading practices); however, when students’ performance indicate that they may not be ready for advancement to the next grade, here are some steps you can take to make those difficult conversations more productive.

  • Make promotion standards explicit, clear, and transparent
  • Maintain regular communication with parents and students about progress
  • Schedule a promotion conference when there is still time to positively impact the outcome
  • Destigmatize retention through the use of growth-based language


[1] Doherty, Katheryn M. “Social Promotion – Education Week –” Education Week. August 4, 2004. Accessed February 4, 2018.

[2] Ibid

[3] David, Jane L. “What Research Says About… / Grade Retention.” Grade Retention – Educational Leadership. March 2008. Accessed February 04, 2018.


[4] West, Martin R. “Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?” Brookings. July 28, 2016. Accessed February 04, 2018.


[5] David, Jane L. “What Research Says About… / Grade Retention.” Grade Retention – Educational Leadership. March 2008. Accessed February 04, 2018.

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