But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism
Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.
Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.
Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.
Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.
And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.
For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.
A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:
- Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
- Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
- Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
- Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
- Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.
Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:
- Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
- Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
- Creating job security for families with children.
Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.
But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.
As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:
- retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
- basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
- retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.
Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.
Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.
These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”
In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:
It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.
For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.
Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.
If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.
Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.
SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.
For Further Reading
Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)