What do third-grade retention policies based on reading tests and charter schools have in common?
First, they have a great deal of public and political support.
But, second, the research base on these policies has shown repeatedly that they do more to fail students than to achieve any of the lofty goals advocates claim.
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 advocacy  is commonplace despite charter schools in SC reinforcing discrediting patterns found across the U.S.:
- Charter schools contribute significantly to the re-segregation of schools, and thus to the exact inequity that plagues schools in high-poverty states.
- Students in charter schools have measurable outcomes that are about the same or worse than comparable public schools in SC. National studies of charter schools have shown that nothing about “charterness” offers advantage to students.
Charter schools—like grade retention—are politically compelling, but neither effective nor appropriate for the essential problems facing public education.
Nonetheless, SC also models reform on Florida’s third-grade retention and reading policies discredited when reviewed. However, 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 and charter schools shares the 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 needed movements against charter schools and other misguided policy:
- Before policy is implemented, the problem needs to be clearly defined with the research base on the appropriate policies for that problem identified by experts in the field (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? According to Stipek and Lombardo:
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.
Currently, the public and political leaders rail against failing schools and failing students, but the truth is that public and political support for misguided policy is failing students.
SC needs 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.
 Op-Ed originally published at The Greenville News, and included here to add hyperlinks for support.