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The 'Social Promotion' Debate: Who's Looking Out for the Kids?

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," March 17, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST:  In the "Impact" segment tonight, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search) has fired three members of the public school board who would not vote to stop social promotion. The mayor wants third graders who cannot read and do basic math to be left back, but "The New York Times" and others say that's a bad policy because it  hurts a child's self-esteem and may lead to even more failure.

With us now is Dr. Herman Sirois (search), the superintendent of the Levittown public school system.  Levittown on Long Island, as you may, is where I grew up.

All right, now you are for social promotion, is that right?

HERMAN SIROIS, Ph.D., LEVITTOWN NY SUPERINTENDENT:  No, we're not for social promotion at all.  We don't necessarily believe social promotion exists.  That's not the issue at all. 

O'REILLY:  All right, but if they can't pass the basic test, and it's a really easy test, and 29,000 of them out of 72,000 couldn't...

SIROIS:  Right.

O'REILLY:  ...what do you do with these kids, put them in the fourth grade when they can't read?

SIROIS:  Well, if you look at any grade in any school in   America, it's not a grade level.  It's an age level.  And the groups of students from second grade to sixth, even seventh grade abilities in  fourth grade, every teacher is trained to teach all the children that are there at that grade level.  This social promotion is a...

O'REILLY:  But - see, I was a former teacher.  And I'm putting myself now in the fourth grade.  In the fourth grade, you're supposed to be able to read.  All right, you have to read.  You have to read the textbooks.  You have to read.  If you can't read, the teacher can't possibly teach you. 

SIROIS:  Oh, no, that's not true.  It's a teacher's job to teach you. 

O'REILLY:  How can a teacher with 25 kids in a class, teach three kids who can't read the geography book?

SIROIS:  If you're going to retain students in any grade, you have to make sure that those students are going to get a better education in the grade you're retaining them than they would in the next grade.

O'REILLY:  All right.

SIROIS:  If not, you're only telling them they're going to fail.  And you're promoting failure.  There's nothing in the research in our  business that ever indicated that retention is a benefit to the children. 

O'REILLY:  All right, so you -- if the kid can't read --  I mean, this is how I want to boil it down to you.

SIROIS:  Right.

O'REILLY:  It's almost like a see Dick run here, doctor, OK?  If you're telling me, if a kid in the third grade can't read, can't pass this test, you're going to put him in the fourth grade, doctor?

SIROIS:  Absolutely.  If the child is doing the best that child can...

O'REILLY:  If he's trying the hardest he can...

SIROIS:  Trying the hardest he can...

O'REILLY:  ...but he can't read, you're putting him up there?

SIROIS:  Then it's the fourth grade teacher's responsibility. 

O'REILLY:  And what if the fourth grade teacher doesn't teach him how to read?

SIROIS:  Then it'll be the fifth grade teacher's responsibility.

O'REILLY:  So you're going to just move them along?

SIROIS:  You can't have 16-year-olds in third grade. 

O'REILLY:  No, but you're just moving - you're warehousing these kids.  You're putting them on a little assembly line.  They're going woop...

SIROIS:  No.

O'REILLY:  And then what is the incentive?

SIROIS:  Let's take warehousing.  You're saying we're warehousing because you're warehousing the kids if you leave them in third grade.  Because eventually they're just going to quit.  I don't think he's going to have...

O'REILLY:  No, that's not true.  I don't believe eventually they're just going to quit. 

SIROIS:  Of course they will.

O'REILLY:  No, they're not.

SIROIS:  Why would you stay in third grade for four years?

O'REILLY:  Because if you leaven them back -- and nobody likes to be left back.  That's a stigma and it's a tough thing. 

SIROIS:  And how many times would you leave them back?

O'REILLY:  All right, I would leave them back and then put them into a separate category of we've got to teach this kid to read and -- or do the basic math. 

SIROIS:  Why don't you do that now?

O'REILLY:  These children - look...

SIROIS:  Why hold them back?  Why ruin their self-image?

O'REILLY:  ...this - I've seen this New York City test.  If these kids can't do it in the third grade, they're never going to succeed.  What do you think, some miracle's going to happen, that they're going to learn how to read in the fourth grade and learn how to add   four and four?

SIROIS:  Do you think a miracle's going to happen in third grade?

O'REILLY:  If you isolate the children, segregate them out, and give them the phonics game or whatever they need, that's...

SIROIS:  You've already given them that.  Here's the reason it's being done, let's face the facts.  If you keep these kids in third grade, they won't take the fourth grade test.  If they don't take the fourth grade test, the fourth graders will do better on the test.  If they do better on the test, the system will look like it will have improved. 

O'REILLY:  I understand there's politics involved. 

SIROIS:  It's a sham from the beginning.  It is...

O'REILLY:  But social promotion has been a disaster in Los  Angeles.  It's been a disaster in New York City. 

SIROIS:  That's not true.

O'REILLY:  Yes, it is.

SIROIS:  It has not been a social  disaster.  As a matter of fact, you have children who attended the...

O'REILLY:  Are you going to tell me, doctor, that kids who can get out of high school and can't read...

SIROIS:  You had kids in New York City...

O'REILLY:  ...effectively and can't write a paragraph, that this is effective schooling?

SIROIS:  It's effective management of children if they can't do anything else. 

O'REILLY:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Who's looking out for those kids?  If you're looking out for them if you impose standards and discipline on them?

SIROIS:  And send them out of school at early ages, make them quit school as soon as...

O'REILLY:  You don't make anybody do anything.  You have to get parental permission to quit school.  You know that.

SIROIS:  At 16, at 18?  No. 

O'REILLY:  Yes.  At 16 is the lowest you can quit school. 

SIROIS:  Oh, you know this, and I'm sure you're up on a lot of the research, if you retain children, it will lead to dropping out. 

O'REILLY:  There's a higher rate, but it's only about 12 percent  higher.  Look, I'm telling you, you're not looking out for the kids if you don't be demand performance.  Look, the reason kids can't...

SIROIS:  I'm telling -- you're not looking out for the kids unless you do something to guarantee their  success. 

O'REILLY:  Guarantee?  You can't guarantee.

SIROIS:  Then how are you going to guarantee it in third grade, if you don't guarantee it in fourth grade?

O'REILLY:  Do you know why they can't read?  They can't read because of their parents, that's why. 

SIROIS:  And are we doing anything about that?

O'REILLY:  What, are you going to break into their house?

SIROIS:  How about the crime in the street?  Are we doing anything about the poverty?  45 percent of these kids are living their lives in poverty.

O'REILLY:  So what do you want to do?

SIROIS:  What do we do? 

O'REILLY:  Give them more money?  Do you want to go to  their house and give them money?

SIROIS:  You end up punishing the victim. 

O'REILLY:  I'm not punishing anybody.  I'm holding them accountable.  The public school system has to have standards and accountability. 

SIROIS:  In fourth grade?

O'REILLY:  Yes.

SIROIS:  Third grade?

O'REILLY:  In first grade.

SIROIS:  Why only third grade?

O'REILLY:  Look, look at the parochial schools.

SIROIS:  Whoa, why only third grade?

O'REILLY:  No, the third grade is the litmus test because at that point a kid can understand the test. 

SIROIS:  The third grade is being implemented in third grade so these kids don't have to take the fourth grade test. 

O'REILLY:  No.

SIROIS:  It's a pure political...

O'REILLY:  Doctor, we have a gentleman's disagreement here.  But I'm telling you, if your kid can't read in the third grade, it's his parents' fault.  And the school has to take emergency measures by giving that kid attention.

SIROIS:  Hold it.  Now first, we blame the schools.  Now we're going to blame just the parents. 

O'REILLY:  I'm not blaming the schools.  I'm blaming the parents, flat out blaming them.  If your kid can't read in the third grade, it's your fault.

SIROIS:  No.

O'REILLY:  Social policies, bologna.  This isn't Cuba.  We can't force people to be...

SIROIS:  Forty-five percent of our children living in poverty, and you got a tax break and I got a tax break...

O'REILLY:  Forty five percent of our children don't live in poverty.

SIROIS:  Forty five percent.

O'REILLY:  OK?  Poor kids are up against it, but this is a capitalistic system.  And that's the way it always will be.  You work your way out of poverty.  You educate yourself. 

SIROIS:  No, this is not a capitalist society.

O'REILLY:  No, what is it?

SIROIS:  Our society is unbridled capitalism.  That's the source of most of these kids' problems. 

O'REILLY:  All right, you're right on capitalism.  But you sound like a socialist to me, doctor.  And I'm -- from coming from Levittown, that's really a shock.  But I appreciate your point of view. 

SIROIS:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) call me names.  You know that.

O'REILLY:  I'm not.  I just said you sound like a socialist, that's all I said.  We appreciate your point of view.

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