Social promotion

Social promotion

Social promotion is the practice of promoting a student (usually a general education student, rather than a special education student) to the next grade despite their low achievement in order to keep them with social peers. It is sometimes referred to as promotion based on seat time. Advocates of social promotion argue that promotion is done so as not to harm the students' self-esteem, to keep students together by age (together with their age cohort), to facilitate student involvement in sports teams, and to allow a student who is strong in one area, but weak in another, to advance further in the strong area.

In Canada and the United States, social promotion is normally limited to Kindergarten through eighth grades, because comprehensive high schools are more flexible about determining which level of students take which classes, which makes the concept of social promotion much less meaningful.

The opposite, to "hold back" a student with poor grades, is called grade retention. Other options include after-school tutoring or summer school.

Common arguments against and for social promotion

Arguments against social promotion

Opponents of social promotion argue that it cheats the child of an education. As a result, when the child gets to high school, they will probably be forced to be retained or attend summer school. Studies have shown that the high school student that is being retained would be inexcusably painful for a student emotionally because high school students are more vulnerable to change; they are experiencing a lot of pressure because of the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Opponents of social promotion argue that it has the following negative impacts:

  • Students who are promoted to a class for which they are known to be unable to do the work, which sets them up for further failure
  • Students will have many failures in the high school years, which will most likely lead to dropping out
  • It sends the message to all students that they can get by without working hard
  • It forces the next teacher to deal with under-prepared students while trying to teach the prepared
  • It gives parents a false sense of their children's progress

Some hold that most students at the elementary school level don't take their education seriously and therefore retention is most likely not to be effective. Since most middle school students value their education more, retention should be used if they are judged not to have adequate skills before entering high school.

Arguments for social promotion

Opponents of "no social promotion" policies do not defend social promotion so much as say that retention is even worse. They argue that retention is not a cost-effective response to poor performance when compared to cheaper or more effective interventions, such as additional tutoring and summer school. They point to a wide range of research findings that show no advantage to, or even harm from, retention, and the tendency for gains from retention to wash out.

Harm from retention cited by these critics include:

  • Increased drop-out rates of retained students over time
  • No evidence of long-term academic benefit for retained students
  • Increased rates of dangerous behaviors such as drinking, drug-use, crime, and teenage pregnancy among retained students as compared with similarly performing promoted students.
  • Feeling left out with kids from different age groups, which means that being too old may lead to bullying, having less friends, and being ridiculed.

Critics of retention also note that retention has hard dollar costs for school systems: requiring a student to repeat a grade is essentially to add one student for a year to the school system, assuming that the student does in fact stay in the system until graduating from high school.


In the United States, no statistics are kept on retention. For boys and minorities, retention is even more common. Nationally, by the time students reach high school, the retention rate for boys is about ten percentage points higher than for girls. In the early grades, retention rates are similar among white Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans. By high school, the rate is about 15 percentage points higher for African Americans and Hispanics than for whites.

In 1999, educational researcher Robert Hauser said of the New York City school district: "In its plan to end social promotion the administration appears to have [included] ... an enforcement provision -- flunking kids by the carload lot -- about which the great mass of evidence is strongly negative. And this policy will hurt poor and minority children most of all."


With the proliferation of graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13.

Social promotion began to spread in the 1930s along with concerns about the psychosocial effects of retention. This trend reversed in the 1980s, as concern about slipping academic standards rose.

The practice of grade retention in the U.S. has been climbing steadily since the 1980s, although local educational agencies may or may not follow this trend. For example, in 1982, New York City schools stopped social promotions. Within a few years, the problems caused by the change in policy lead the city to start social promotion again. In 1999, the city once again eliminated social promotion; it reinstated it after the number of repeaters had mounted to 100,000 by 2004, driving up costs and leading to cutbacks in numerous programs, including those for helping underachievers.


One alternative to social promotion is a policy of grade retention, where students repeat a grade when they are judged to be a low performer. The aim of retention is to help the student learn and sharpen skills such as organization, management, study skills, literacy and academic which are very important before entering the next grade, college and the labor force.

In the US simple social promotion was not held to be an adequate alternative to grade retention. Current theories among academic scholars prefer to address underperformance problems with remedial help. Students with singular needs or disabilities require special teaching approaches, equipment, or care within or outside a regular classroom. The current system (see also: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) can result in a student with an IQ of 82 being retained, while one with equal performance and an IQ of 78 is promoted.


Further reading

  • "Schools Repeat Social Promotion Problems", Sheryl McCarthy, Newsday, March 28, 2002.
  • "What If We Ended Social Promotion?", Education Week, April 7, 1999, pp 64-66.
  • Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, 2006

External links

Search another word or see Social promotionon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature