The New York Times headline suggests we are finally poised to read a positive story about education: A Summer of Extra Reading and Hope for Fourth Grade.

But education reporter Motoko Rich’s examination of third-grade retention policies based on the Florida model and sweeping across the U.S. is not about “hope,” but about a disturbing resistance by political leaders, the media, and the public to confront the overwhelming evidence that grade-retention is a harmful policy and that the Florida model has been discredited.

Rich opens with one of the misleading Urban Legends driving flawed reading policies: “Educators like to say that third grade is the year when students go from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.'”

However, as Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR:

“The theory of the fourth-grade shift had been based on behavioral data,” says the lead author of the study, Donna Coch. She heads the Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth College.

The assumption teachers make: “In a nutshell,” Coch says, “by fourth grade you stop learning to read and start reading to learn. We’re done teaching the basic skills in third grade, and you go use them starting in the fourth.”

But, Coch’s team found, that assumption may not be true. The study involved 96 participants, divided among third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders as well as college students. All average readers, the subjects wore noninvasive electrode caps that could swiftly pick up electrical activity in the brain.

Narrow and distorted assumptions about reading (and literacy broadly) have plagued reading instruction for over a century in the U.S. (review the work of Lou LaBrant to see how this has played out over much of the 20th century). A superficial view of reading and writing (often reduced to phonics, or simple pronunciation, and grammar, or “correctness”) is compounded by our testing culture that further skews how we teach and perceive reading and writing; how we test reading and writing (disproportionately multiple-choice formats seeking the “right” answers or correct “rules”) becomes what counts as reading and writing.

Rich’s article doesn’t present hope for students struggling to read, but does provide a a picture of how the Florida model is sweeping the U.S.:

Fourteen states in 2012 enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools hold back students who could not read properly by third grade. Districts in Arizona and Colorado also offered summer school for struggling third-grade readers for the first time this year, then will consider whether to hold back some of them before the new school year begins.

While the summer courses are likely to make some difference, teachers here and around the country say the third-grade laws are another example of lofty educational goals paired with insufficient resources. A six-week course, they say, cannot possibly make up for what Anthony and the others need: the extra help and focus should start in preschool.

Is the problem with 3rd-grade retention policies based on high-stakes reading tests simply “insufficient resources”?

While too often policy is crippled by a failure to provide resources matching the rhetoric, the problem here is that both grade retention and the Florida model have been refuted by 40 years of research (grade retention) and reviews of the Florida model (see HERE and HERE).

The rise of grade retention policies is further evidence of the failures associated with accountability based on high-stakes testing, another subset of the entire accountability model that we persist to re-package despite the growing record of its failure (see HERE and HERE).

Instead of building reading (and all literacy) policies and practices on accountability models, we must make the following changes to achieve the hope mislabeled in the opening headline:

  • Grade retention and extended school days/years are likely to be viewed by students as punishment as well as markers for their own failures. Measurable reading achievement and high-stakes test scores are primarily markers for the relative affluence or poverty of children; thus, punitive policies are punishing children for the accidents of their birth. Let’s instead seek policies that address directly the poverty that deny our children hope in the first place. As Stephen Krashen has shown, access to books in a child’s home is one of the most powerful ways to support childhood literacy development. Shifting from the punitive (grade retention, extended days/years) to a restorative model (providing books for children) is a powerful first step toward real hope.
  • Literacy is a life-long journey, and not a sequential/linear human behavior that can be “finished.” We must set aside reductive views of reading and writing, embracing instead policies and practices that provide all students extended opportunities to read and write daily in school. Children need to read and write by choice and with expert direct guidance for hundreds and thousands of hours over many, many years. Literacy has no shortcut, in fact, and we continue to misread strong literacy among affluent children as something other than the rich experiences they are afforded by the accidents of the births. That misreading results in a corrosive deficit view of children in poverty. All children need and deserve rich experiences, extended rich experiences with literacy; grade-retention and high-stakes tests are not rich experiences with texts.
  • Childhood literacy is strongly associated with the literacy of the adults in children’s lives—their parents, siblings, and teachers. Investing in a wide-range of policies addressing adult and family literacy, then, is investing in each child’s literacy: well-funded public libraries, well-funded and staffed school libraries, community reading initiatives, book drives and free books for families, rich teacher and librarian staffing and in-service related to literacy growth.

In Louise DeSalvo’s memoir, Vertigo, the Virginia Wolff scholar details how as a child and teenager she finds solace in the library and relationships with kind teachers (notably a physics teacher who chooses to honor her love of reading while encouraging the young DeSalvo to stop ignoring his course; see pp. 168-169), while coming to recognize the power of her passion for reading. DeSalvo’s life story—as with Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Margaret Atwood—is a vivid narrative about the hope found in reading, and a stark antidote to reading policy driven by misreading literacy and research, misreading our children and childhood.

Rich documents a failure of credible literacy policy trapped in political ideology:

In Florida, one of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills, all teachers are required to assess children’s reading levels starting in kindergarten and to offer extra support for children who have trouble learning to read.

But this is not reason to celebrate, but a call to change course.