What do third-grade retention policies based on reading tests, charter schools, tracking, and parental choice have in common?

First, across the U.S., they all have a great deal of public and political support.

Second, the research base on all of these policies (among many other popular policies) has shown repeatedly that they do more to fail students than to achieve any of the lofty goals advocates claim.

My home state of South Carolina is a typical example of how education policy not grounded in the evidence continues to fail students again and again. For example, charter schools advocacy remains robust and deeply misleading:

We know that choice in education changes lives. We must work together to develop a culture in South Carolina that values education — from our families to funding at the State House. All students deserve access to a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code, and excellent public charter schools are part of the solution in transforming South Carolina’s future.

This sort of incomplete and distorted advocacy is commonplace in SC, regretfully, but charter schools in SC have reinforced several patterns found across the U.S. but contradictory to the advocacy:

  • Charter schools contribute significantly to the re-segregation of schools, and thus to the exact inequity that plagues schools in high-poverty states such as SC.
  • Students in charter schools have measurable outcomes that are about the same or worse than comparable public schools. I have documented this in SC, but national studies of charter schools have shown that nothing about “charterness” offers advantage to students.
  • Charter schools are the newest version of the school choice movement that depends on emotional appeals to sloganism, “Parents deserve more choices,” and anecdote. Ultimately, however, parental choice has been idealized (many parents can and do make poor choices for children), and school choice remains mostly a neutral to negative influence on educational quality. Charter schools as a mechanism for competition are a distraction from the public good and harm all students, even those who claim they are thriving in selected charter schools. [1]

Charter schools and parental choice—like grade retention and tracking—are politically compelling, but neither effective nor appropriate for the essential problems facing public education.

As well, SC is also seeking to follow Florida’s third-grade retention and reading policies—which have been discredited when reviewed. However, a possible pinpoint of light may be at the end of this accountability-based education reform movement tunnel, as John Thompson details:

Oklahoma’s Republican Legislature overrode the veto of Republican Governor Mary Fallin, and overwhelmingly rejected another cornerstone of Jeb Bush’s corporate reform agenda. The overall vote was 124 to 21….

Oklahoma’s victory over the test and punish approach to 3rd grade reading is a win-win team effort of national importance. The override was due to an unexpected, grassroots uprising started by parents, joined by superintendents and teachers, organized on social media, and assisted by anti- corporate reform educators and our opposite, Stand for Children, as well as Tea Party supporters, and social service providers who are increasingly coming to the rescue of the state’s grossly underfunded schools.

The rise of grade-retention policy shares with the rise of charter schools the powerful and flawed combination of popularity and a solid research base discrediting those policies. Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo pose some key points about the need to reject grade-retention policy, points that should guide similar movements against charter schools, tracking, and parental choice:

  • Before policy is implemented, the problem needs to be clearly defined and then the research base on the appropriate policies for that problem must be identified by experts in the field (and not political leaders or policy advocates). If, for example, reading achievement is an identified problem in a state, what do we know about grade retention as a policy solution?

A majority of peer-reviewed studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated that holding students back yields little or no long-term academic benefits and can actually be harmful to students. When improvements in achievement are linked to retention, they are not usually sustained beyond a few years, and there is some evidence for negative effects on self-esteem and emotional well-being.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence that retention can reduce the probability of high school graduation. According to a 2005 review of decades of studies by Nailing Xia and Elizabeth Glennie: “Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of leaving school earlier, even after controlling for academic performance and other factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family background, etc.”

  • Once we establish the problem and the evidence base on the reform, what concept should guide adopting new policy? Again, about retention, Stipek and Lombardo explain: “Instead of giving children the same treatment that failed them the first time, alternative strategies provide different kinds of learning opportunities.” In other words, policies that reinforce or replicate the identified problems must be ended, and then something different needs to be implemented.

If reading achievement is a problem, grade retention guarantees to cause more harm than good.

If public school segregation and student achievement are problems, charter schools actually fuel segregation and offer about the same student achievement (and even worse) as public schools.

If equity of opportunity is a public school problem, tracking creates inequity in schools.

In the current public and political environment that rails against failing schools and failing students, the ugly truth is that public and political support for misguided policy is failing students. Again and again.

Education policy must no longer be a popularity contest driven by sloganism and anecdotes.

If we insist on continuing a commitment to choice, we need to choose the sorts of public school policies that will insure that no child and no parent needs to choose the school best for any child.

In SC and across the U.S., we need to choose Oklahoma, not Florida.

[1] Now that New Orleans has completely replaced the public school system with charter schools, the full picture of the futility of charter schools is being revealed, as Layton explains about the results of the turnover:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operations.

“The claim that there’s an imbalance is right on the money,” White said. “The idea that it’s associated with privilege and high outcomes is right on the money.”