Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Cars and Tractors are not People

The goal is admirable but the application is a bit misguided. I think everyone can agree that knowing how to read is one of the most fundamental skills necessary to participate in society.

Beginning in 2017, any third grade student that is not a proficient reader (or is substantially deficient as defined by the Iowa Code) will either repeat the third grade or attend a summer school program that focuses on intensive reading instruction. This is a state law that was part of the education reform legislation passed in 2012. The first group of students that will be impacted by this law are currently in 2nd grade. If your child is struggling with reading you will want to pay close attention and ask a lot of questions!

Elementary schools have always included a strong emphasis on reading instruction. The fact is, I believe that teaching kids to read is the most important subject we cover in elementary school. If you take a look at the typical instructional schedule of an elementary classroom, you will clearly see that priority in the amount of time that is devoted to reading. Naturally however, as students progress through their formative years, the amount of time devoted to reading instruction begins to diminish as other content areas are introduced to the schedule. A shift begins to happen around the fourth grade where instead of learning how to read, we use reading as a tool to learn. For example, students begin to use textbooks as a source of content. An assignment for instance might include reading a chapter in a science book and drawing conclusions based on that content. Students who have not developed strong reading skills in advance of that shift to 'reading to learn' are going to begin to struggle more, not only in reading but in other content areas as well.   

There are some concerns about this arbitrary approach to retention. For starters, there is an assumption that schools can somehow get all students to reach this benchmark at a predetermined point in time. To accept this premise would, I believe remove the individuality and humanness of the students we work with daily in our schools. Consider this: in a factory or manufacturing industry we can set quotas for production. Certainly General Motors has a certain number of cars that are expected to come off the assembly line in a given day. John Deere most likely utilizes a quota system to produce a certain amount of tractors. This system works well for manufacturing industries because cars and tractors are not people. Those industries are dealing with a raw material that is fixed, stable, uniform, rigid, and orderly. This enables those assembly lines to operate in a systematic and efficient manner. What happens when that raw material isn't uniform? It's imperfection makes it unusable and therefore it is discarded (hence the quality control department).

Students on the other hand are human. Unique. Individual. Interesting. Even your doppelganger or twin is different!

The Iowa law is based on similar legislation that was enacted in Florida many years ago. The results of that law were mixed and certainly not definitive. For example, the Florida results suggested that reading results of fourth grade students increased as a result of this law. Think about that for a moment. Why wouldn't they? If you have retained the struggling readers and they are still in the third grade, it stands to reason the scores of fourth grade students are going to be higher!

Further, the retention law seems contrary to decades of research into holding kids back. The 'benefits' of retention are only temporary and usually wear off within five years. In fact, after five years students who were retained are more likely to be behind their peers and have a much greater statistical likelihood of dropping out of school. 

There are instances where retention may be necessary and the right choice. However, I believe those decisions are best left to those who have the most intimate knowledge of the situation: the parents, classroom teacher, and principal. To legislate retention based on an arbitrary measure does not seem like the right approach. Our task and goal in Hudson will be to focus on the intervention and remediation aspects of the law, hopefully minimizing the likelihood that children will be held back. 

Teaching students to read isn't going to work with a one size fits all model of instruction or an assembly line approach to education. These are kids, not widgets in a widget factory.

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