Opinion | ‘The beatings will continue until you learn to read’

Gretchen Dziadosz is executive director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

With summer finally here after three months of remote learning for K-12 students, there has never been a better opportunity to rethink Michigan’s third-grade reading law and how students learn to read.

The state hit the pause button on its third-grade reading law in March when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all school buildings.  Still, evidence continues to mount nationwide that third-grade retention laws do nothing to improve reading deficiencies among young learners.

It’s unclear whether next school year will involve in-school learning, remote learning, or a hybrid model. Regardless what next school year looks like, Michigan’s students will be the latest to fall victim to this ineffective and punitive policy without action by policymakers.

The current approach

Third-grade retention laws have seen a heavy push across the country in recent years. In part, it is a reaction to the belief that “social promotion” is rampant.

Reading retention law proponents always point to Florida, and now Mississippi, as case studies. They never mention that of the 15 states and the District of Columbia where mandatory retention laws have been implemented, nine have below-average fourth-grade reading scores on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

South Carolina implemented its law in 2017 and its 2019 reading scores are 3 points below the national average. In fact, the score is 2 points below its score in 2015, before that state’s law took effect.

Here in Michigan, our third-grade reading law was originally set to take effect this school year. Signed into law by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the law requires third-graders be held back if they are more than a grade level behind in reading standards by the end of the school year. Implementation of the law was put on hold when Michigan canceled student testing for the rest of the school year in response to the pandemic.

There is significant pushback from Michigan parents and educators, and many policymakers say the law needs to be reconsidered. Michigan’s State School Superintendent Michael Rice has stated these laws are based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.”

True costs, solutions

Mandatory retention costs are extremely high. Educating a retained child means taxpayers pay for an extra year of education. In addition, researchers have long demonstrated the adverse social and emotional impacts on the student — even many years later in the student’s life.

Allocating the same money to interventions that work would be the more effective and humane choice for those children.

Florida implemented many additional interventions when it created its mandatory retention law. Which interventions made the difference? William Mathis, in a review of the impact of the so-called “Florida Formula on Student Achievement” interventions, noted there were other statewide Florida programs that could be the full or partial cause of improvements — namely, a major state investment in class size reduction and a statewide reading program.

Because of these, and many other simultaneous reforms, it is impossible to attribute test score improvements to any set or subset of these reforms.

The need is real

There will always be students who need additional help an overburdened elementary teacher cannot provide. The likelihood of at least partial remote learning next school year could make this an even greater challenge to help these students.

Lowering class size and providing literacy coaches to give struggling students the help they need is part of the answer. The expansion of high-quality preschool programs and after-school and summer school programs is also a key part of the equation. The ability to adopt such reforms will vary depending on health and safety decisions made at the state and local levels amid COVID-19 and beyond.

Research has also long established that students in schools with media specialists have higher reading scores. This holds true even when controlling for affluence of the school or community. In fact, there is evidence the benefits are strongest for at-risk learners. Yet years of budget cuts have caused many districts to reduce or eliminate school librarians.

Another piece of the puzzle is whether struggling readers can see. In one Mississippi district, 88 percent of students who failed reading tests were found to have vision problems. The American Optometric Association notes, “Current vision screening methods cannot be relied on to effectively identify individuals who need vision care. In some cases, vision screening may inhibit the early diagnosis of vision problems. Screenings can create a false sense of security for those individuals who ‘pass’ the screening but who actually have a vision problem.” Mandatory comprehensive eye and vision testing by a professional should be required for all struggling readers.

Teaching children to read is essential, but a mandatory retention law is not the way. There is a better path. Research has shown us what it is. We simply need to follow it.

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Chuck Jordan
Sun, 07/05/2020 - 10:54am

Trying to keep students who read a varying degrees of reading competence for various different reasons may be the problem. Better to group students in classes according to their ability in the subject matter. Students who read better could move ahead more quickly and those better in math and science could progress at their own speed. Learning to read takes place over a life time. Reading needs to be taught and reinforced more in subject classes like science and history, not just ELA classes.

becky oexler
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 8:48am

agreed. i am a former teacher in public schools. the "no child left behind" is crap. if they have to be held back to be better educated to serve society better......this is my opinion

Tue, 07/14/2020 - 9:15am

Once again, a professor of education is urging us to abandon academic standards and let incompetence in teachers and students slide to prevent "discouraging students." The "Read by 3rd Grade" law happened because far too many students - approximately 70% of them in Michigan's urban school districts - are not learning to read at at least a 2nd grade level during the 4 school years between kindergarten and the end of 3rd grade. Since 4th grade is the point at which most curricula switch between "learning to read" and "reading to learn", students who enter 4th grade without adequate reading skills will fall behind their classmates even faster from that point forward. No wonder that progress toward closing the racial achievement gap has been slow or non-existent over the past 30 years.

What we need to do is three-fold. First we must teach or re-teach all elementary school teachers the science-based, proven way to successfully teach English literacy skills to the vast majority of students. That process starts with systemic lessons in phonics to teach word decoding skills and proceeds through lessons on grammar and sentence structure, word structure (prefixes, suffixes, root meanings) and making inferences from text, graphs, and illustrations. Next, school principals, curriculum and reading specialists, parents, superintendents, and school boards must require all K-3 teachers to actually use those techniques in their classrooms. A so-called "Balanced Literacy" curriculum is often a fig leaf for "teachers do whatever they like and hope it works" about teaching reading. And lastly, do not promote students beyond Grade 3 who have not mastered reading to the minimum of 2nd grade level unless they have a diagnosed disability AND are receiving individualized interventions at an intensity designed to close the gap between current student performance and grade level within 2 school years. Even with an IEP in place, promotion of a non-fluent reader past 3rd grade should happen only if the student's parents insist or the student has previously been red-shirted for K or repeated a grade. It's far, far better for students' self-esteem and commitment to academic achievement to intervene early than late. An 8 year old will bounce back from repeating a grade if needed far more easily and faster than an 8th grader will.

In my ideal world, Michigan would also require a similar minimum level of subject mastery in all 4 academic core subjects (English language arts, math, science, and social studies) for students to move up from elementary school to middle school, and out of 8th grade into high school. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, school districts are supposed to be providing supplemental instruction, tutoring, and other science-based educational interventions to students whose academic performance is significantly below grade level. Moving them up to the next grade instead of intervening with summer school, tutoring, or repeating at least the class(es) they haven't yet mastered means students are much more likely to disengage and fall even further behind their age-mates. Students who are disengaged frequently become disruptive, which interferes with other students learning. Michigan desperately needs to break that vicious cycle of school underperfomance.

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 12:05pm

What if we abandoned the age-based grade levels and just kept the standards for what needs to be learned before moving to the next "level?" That would mean more classes with mixed ages, but an older child in social studies might be the youngest in the math class. Our education system retains a lot of philosophies from the past century and a half without necessarily questioning whether it works today. Clearly, it doesn't for everyone.