January 5th, 2013

WATCH: The Third Grade Reading Guarantee

Several studies have shown that students who cannot read by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Armed with that statistic, lawmakers in six states have recently drawn the line at third grade — telling students that if they cannot pass the state reading test, they cannot be promoted.

These states have now joined eight others with similar laws. To many front line educators, however, holding students back is a cure worse than the disease.

In this PBS NewsHour report, producers John Tulenko and David Wald sort out the facts about grade retention — which disproportionately impacts disadvantaged students — by taking viewers to schools in Ohio where a third grade retention policy has just taken effect.

View Transcript (PDF)

This program is made possible by the following funders:
Grade Level Reading Fund of the Tides Foundation, The Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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Grade retention is the worst conceivable treatment for any educational problem. It exacerbates the problem by segregating those with need from peers who could help them; it teaches the victims that they’re stupid, and should spend a full year doing what they might have done more efficiently the year before; and it most surely doesn’t work to improve skills and build confidence.

It is very disappointing that you and Mr. Tulenko ignore the dramatic data like that of the Chicago Consortium on School Research for nearly the past 20 years. (http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/publications?type=All&year[value][year]=&keyword=grade+retention&author=) Not only do those studies repeatedly document the largely negative, and inhumane consequences of breaking kids from their peers, but they also show conclusively grade retention is a tactic of the 19th century, producing future failure and dropouts. Creating an underclass is as easy as holding them back.

In stark contrast, early intervention works: if grades (on tests or in any form) are to be diagnostic, their findings must be applied as a timely, low cost, high impact tactic. This is hardly subtle, and to have you and Learning Matters wring your hands in feigned concern that some children might be hurt, and echo the largely pointless arguments against “social promotion,” while thousands of young people are virtually destroyed, is most inappropriate.

A decade ago I did a small study on “vulnerable teens” in North Suburban Boston. I found one district routinely retained 25% of it’s 9th grade, and “just coincidentally” had the highest learning gains from the 7th to the 9th grade test scores. I blew up. Caught in his own mendacity, the Principal left. The Superintendent left. The Guidance and Reading Directors left. They’d been caught exploiting the most vulnerable of their students to extort a metric that made the administrators look good.

In their place new staff created an early intervention program which sought out 7th through 9th grade students who were having attendance problems. They matched them with 12th grade students, structured mentorships, supervised those partnerships with teachers and counselors, and reduced retention from 25% to less than 5% in two years.

It was their idea, not mine. They solved a problem which had not only decimated a generation of learners, but, not-coincidentally, had provoked over a dozen suicides a few years before.

The message from this lesson is that time is far too valuable to presume that “more of it will cure anything.” It won’t. Attention, focus, and realistic goals cure most problems in education.

A few years later the, by then new, Superintendent asked what I thought of their solution. I pointed out the way to measure a school system is by how much money their graduating class gets from colleges and/or jobs within three years of graduation. Poor kids get more, rich kids get better, but, at $300,000 for a four year degree 350 kids could be returning a pile of money to a working class city that used to spend it blindly on extra years of school.

Don’t get caught in naive oversimplifications like grade retention. And, by the way, you might note that it costs anywhere from $15000 to $40,000 for an extra year of school. Where’s that going to come from? Unless, of course, a Principal haunts the halls to tell poor performing kids how to drop out!




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