Brian Jacob in Brookings: "The wisdom of mandatory grade retention" in Michigan

September 30, 2016

Brian Jacob's latest contribution to Brookings' Evidence Speaks focuses on “The wisdom of mandatory grade retention.”

In the article, Jacob investigates whether it is sound public policy to require third graders who fall behind in grade-level reading to be retained another year. Michigan’s legislature passed a bill last week that, if signed, will make Michigan the 17th state to enact such a policy. The idea behind the legislation is that repeating third graders will have more time to gain the necessary reading skills to succeed in the future.

Jacob agrees that “early reading proficiency is an important policy priority, and state legislators are right to focus attention in this area.” Yet, he says, “Smart policy involves looking closely at costs as well as benefits of interventions.” 

Retaining all third graders who fall behind in reading, Jacob says, “would cost hundreds of millions of dollars” for the state, which would have to pay to keep children in school for another year. In addition, he points out, studies have shown that the short-term benefits fade by the time students reach middle school. Jacob proposes some evidence-based alternatives and notes that a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis should be done on the issue. 

Brian A. Jacob is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy, Professor of Economics, and Professor of Education at the University of Michigan. He is co-director of the Education Policy Initiative at the Ford School.