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No More Social Promotion? Studying Instead of Criticizing

Ohanian Comment: I wish Professor Samuel G. Freedman and his friend Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg could read some of the mail I get from desperate and despondent parents of third graders.

Mr. Freedman praises lessons carefully scripted for focus and consistency.


Mr. Freedman does us no favors by simplifying the issues here.

The headline says people should "study" instead of criticizing. Fine. But reporters should also "study" before praising.

FOR the last six months, one of the louder and most persistent noises emanating from education circles in New York was the condemnation of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan to attack social promotion. He called for holding back third graders who failed basic-skills tests in math or reading and requiring them to attend summer school before trying the exams again.

"Tantamount to child abuse," cried Jane R. Hirschmann of the advocacy group Time Out From Testing. "Ill conceived," declared the City Council's Education Committee in a resolution. "Racist," pronounced an African-American council member, Charles Barron. Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers' union, depicted the Bloomberg program as a cunning way of plumping up scores on statewide fourth-grade tests by holding back the weakest third graders.

And the mayor did himself no favor by ramming the remedial effort through the Panel for Educational Policy last March, firing and replacing two members who dared to dissent. Perhaps it was no surprise that protesters marched outside City Hall on the April day before the third-grade tests were given.

Well, none of that hubbub mattered much to Susan Pellecier of Flushing, Queens. What she heard was that her daughter, Dominique, had scored at Level 1, the lowest of four echelons, in the reading test. That result confirmed the concerns that Dominique's teacher at Public School 200 had already shared with Ms. Pellecier about whether the child was ready for fourth grade.

Instead of resisting, instead of complaining, instead of impugning the test or the teacher or the mayor, Ms. Pellecier postponed her family's vacation to Florida and consented to have Dominique attend the Summer Success Academy at P.S. 200. What both mother and daughter understood, if few of the mayor's critics did, was that passing along a child in academic trouble is a recipe for disaster.

"Of course, I want Dominique to go to fourth grade," Ms. Pellecier said. "But I know she's not reading well enough. If she has to repeat a grade, better now than later. As a parent, it's only natural to want to do whatever's going to help your kid."

So Dominique has spent the last five weeks in Room 312, where the dominant sound is of that all-too-rare commodity in education: common sense. Along with just nine other pupils, roughly one-third the size of a class during the regular school year, Dominique gets the attention of a teacher named Elizabeth McCormack. The group works in unbroken blocks as long as 75 minutes on both basic skills and test preparation in reading and math, with lessons carefully scripted for focus and consistency. Every day, each child also receives 10 minutes of personal drilling in phonics with an aide.

When the formal academic day ends after four and a half hours at 1 p.m., Dominique moves into an afternoon program providing sports and arts, which was deliberately included in all the summer academies as a sweetener. There she has made herself a butterfly bookmark, now that she thinks of herself as a better reader.

The experiences of Dominique and Susan Pellecier typify the reaction to the Summer Success Academy at P.S. 200. One of 248 sites serving a total of 9,000 third graders, it handles 31 third graders from nine schools in Flushing. Fewer than a half-dozen families of children who had scored at the lowest level refused to enroll their children in the P.S. 200 program. Attendance has stood above 90 percent, even higher than the citywide average. Parent coordinators place daily calls to the home of any absent child, and the summer academy has held weekly workshops for parents on education topics, initially drawing only five but gradually tripling the turnout.

Perhaps the most telling testament to the summer program here lies with second graders - 71 of them, filling seven classes. These children were not mandated to attend. They were placed by savvy parents who, in part, wanted to avoid required summer school next year and who, in part, seized on a good program when they saw it.

Mary Guertin put in her son, Alexander, because dyslexia has slowed his development in reading. "Some other mothers thought I was nuts," she recalled, "but I was happy to do it. It's constructive and he's learning instead of losing ground."

Ghada Aly, an Egyptian immigrant, signed up her son, Adam, because he had faltered in reading, even while excelling in math. "I've heard that third-grade test is very hard to pass," she said.

To put it somewhat differently, scoring at Level 1 on the third-grade test is a sign of serious problems: a child who can read the words of an age-appropriate book, for instance, but not really grasp what they mean or the story they tell. And if the test can serve as an early-warning system, however imperfectly, then it helps meet a need that many educators have long recognized.

"We have to stop stigmatizing being held over," said Phyliss Bullion, the principal of P.S. 200. "Does it matter if you graduate high school at 17 or 18 or 19? It's more important you come out with the skills you need to survive in the world."

Along with Frances Walters, who supervises the summer program at P.S. 200, Ms. Bullion can raise the useful kind of critical questions. Are 22 days of class enough? Is third grade possibly too late? Could there be enough money to have smaller classes and more individual tutoring and drilling during the regular year?

None of those concerns, however, vitiate the logic of the summer program. "To just pass children along," Ms. Walters said, "is a crime."

As for Dominique Pellecier, she will retake the reading and math tests early next week. About a week later, she will learn the results. In the meantime, she will have taken that deferred vacation to Florida, the one her mother now describes as a reward. "For working so hard," Susan Pellecier often tells her daughter. "For giving it a shot."

E-mail: sgfreedman@nytimes.com

— Samuel G. Freedman
New York Times




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