By Tom Dunn
Superintendent, Miami County Educational Service Center
Now that we are nearly halfway through this school year, the repercussions of the vaunted “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” are on the horizon. You remember that law, don’t you? It “guarantees” that all third graders will be able to read proficiently (based on a single test) or face retention. One can only hope that as we get closer to the day of reckoning that parents of third graders will rise up, as fourth grade parents did a few years ago to stop the “Fourth Grade Reading Guarantee,” and end this foolishness.
This law does a great disservice to students and parents alike in that it makes promises on which it can’t deliver, because it ignores the reality of literacy development in young children. Its sponsor, Senator Peggy Lehner, and the law’s other supporters pretend as if ignoring literacy development in very young children, then punishing third graders who can’t read at some randomly determined level by retaining them is the answer to students who can’t read. This is unmitigated hogwash. But, don’t take my word for it.
Listen to what Susan Neuman, an expert in early literacy at the University of Michigan, has to say about literacy development. “Reading skills are notoriously difficult to improve. While math scores on tests such as NAEP have improved substantially since testing began in the early 1990’s, reading scores have increased only by slim margins. Experts believe that is because children learn math mostly at school, while they learn most of their language skills at home, much of it before they even enter school,” she states.
Neuman said that means states wanting to make significant improvements in early reading need to target parents before their children reach school, or even preschool.
“Universal pre-k is terrific, but it starts at age four,” Neuman said. “We know these disparities began as early as 12 months. What we need are parent engagement policies that work with parents very early on to promote what we know are good language strategies.”
Neuman said the research shows that parents can also be taught simple interventions that can help the youngest children develop early language skills.
“We’ll start very early with a hug and a smile and a focus on getting that parent to do eye-to-eye contact with the child, to talk to them, to sing to them,” Neuman said. “These are things we can do very early on that can promote and really change the trajectory of learning.”
Interestingly, when I sat across from Senator Peggy Lehner and told her this very same thing, how her law ignored the facts of a child’s literacy development, and how you can’t fix this problem without involving parents at the earliest ages possible she commented, “We can’t force parents to do their jobs, so what do you want us to do, just give up?”
Actually, at no time in our conversation did I suggest that we should “just give up.” What I DID say was that it would be nice for lawmakers to have just one honest conversation about how children learn to read and write, and what a travesty it was to create a law that “guarantees” a skill while ignoring the most important stages of a child’s development, that holds schools accountable for “guaranteeing” students’ reading success, and that, in the face of research showing the harm of retaining students, punishes the children who haven’t had the good fortune of parental involvement during those formative years by forcing them to repeat the third grade.
When an educator dares to suggest such a radical concept of developing a law based on some semblance of research, politicians like Senator Lehner and Governor Kasich scream about our aversion to accountability. No, our aversion is not to accountability; our aversion is to stupidity; the stupidity of continuing to spend money on mandates that can’t work because they don’t address the real problem.