Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

As new legislation was being debated in South Carolina, what was destined to become Read to Succeed, I was in contact with some strong advocates for public education who were seeking ways to shape effective reading policy in the state.

My input was focused on acknowledging the research base that refuted the popular political agendas mostly mimicking Florida reading policies driven by standardized high-stakes testing and grade retention for third graders.

First, decades of research reveal that despite popular support for grade retention (and bending to public antagonism for social promotion) grade retention is overwhelmingly harmful to students, especially our most vulnerable students (students living in poverty, black and brown students, English language learners).

Second, the Florida model has enough data and research to conclude that test-based third-grade retention produces some short-term bumps in test scores (what I would call false positives since this may be simply that students are taking the test again, and likely is not indication of reading growth) but those mirage-gains disappear over time (see Jasper’s doctoral dissertation on the data).

None the less, I was soon informed that there would be bi-partisan support for a new reading policy (Read to Succeed), even though it was flawed, because there would be an influx of more funding for reading.

Fast forward to now, the fall of 2018, when the first students are being impacted by this legislation—documented well by Paul Bowers at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

South Carolina schools held back about 354 students in third grade for the 2018-19 school year under a new law designed to retain students with reading deficiencies.

That figure represents about one-half of 1 percent of the third-graders who took the state SC READY reading subtest in the spring — and only about 8.5 percent of the students who earned the lowest possible grade, “Not Met 1.”

While many will read this as either failure or success in terms improving reading and literacy in the state, the real lessons here are about politics, and the essential failure of bureaucratic measures for educational purposes.

Let me unpack some of how the consequences of Read to Succeed for 300-plus students is much ado about politics (not reading):

  • Is SC 47th in reading proficiency in the U.S. as Bowers reports? This may seem obvious, or at least non-partisan data, but educational rankings are inherently flawed, thoroughly debunked by Gerald Bracey. SC is doomed to low rankings in reading if those rankings remain anchored to high-stakes standardized tests (which reflect socio-economic status of any child’s home and community than educational attainment) and if SC political leadership refuses to address the state being also mired in the bottom quartile of high-poverty states. To claim SC ranks at the bottom of reading proficiency is a distraction from the root cause of those scores—inequity and poverty.
  • Is retaining 300+ students too many or too few? Bowers coverage seems to imply that Read to Succeed has fallen well short of having an effective impact while, as I was referenced in the article, I remain adamant that 345 students retained are 345 too many. Here is why. This legislation has created a bureaucratic mandate for a great deal of time and tax-payer money to be spent on more bureaucracy than valid reading instruction or reading opportunities for students. More high-stakes testing (which distorts what counts as reading), greater stigmas and misguided demands on vulnerable populations of students, more data collecting and analysis (without regard for the quality of that data), more prescriptions and mandates for teachers that result in less effective reading instruction—this in a nutshell is why Read to Succeed is a waste of time and money as well as a fraud in terms of addressing or improving reading in the state.
  • What really is going on—the politics that trumps reading? Read to Succeed has been exposed as legislation more dedicated to political viability (the public loves grade retention, and remains naive about high-stakes testing) than funding and supporting public education or teacher professionalism and autonomy. Read to Succeed is a political mirage, generating political capital at the expense of student achievement (see also Florida).
  • What are the negative lessons so far of Read to Succeed? (1) Stop mimicking the politics-of-the-day from other states, (2) reject education policy grounded in high-stakes testing and punishment (grade retention), (3) resists political agendas and embrace research and educational expertise , and (4) stop isolating political attention on schools as if they are not subsets of and influenced by larger and more powerful social realities such as poverty and inequity.
  • What should SC be committed to instead? Most importantly, political leadership and the public in the state must admit that social policy is the first line of educational policy; SC needs to address historical pockets of poverty in the state often linked to racism and generational inequity. This big picture failure of political leadership, however, does not mean there is nothing we can do in our schools concerning reading. Schools also must be reformed to end the inequities they often reflect and perpetuate—tracking, teacher assignments, school funding, experimentation (schools choice and charter schools, for example) that refuses to address directly public school reform. Finally, reading instruction can and should be reformed to include the following: much lower student/teacher ratios to facilitate effective instruction; guaranteeing student access to books and reading in their homes, communities, and schools; creating and supporting teacher professionalism and autonomy in terms of strong foundations in high-quality reading instruction not driven by raising test scores; patience for student growth in reading that rejects the flawed (and false) crisis response to third-grade literacy; and a robust campaign to inform better the public and parents about effective reading instruction, healthy student growth in reading, and how educational outcomes are more often than not a reflection of society and community affluence, not school or teacher quality.

Read to Succeed is yet another story about political motivation coupled with the good intentions of those charged with implementing truly flawed policy (see No Child Left Behind and the current Every Student Succeeds Act).

Good intentions are never enough, and good intentions can never overcome political negligence.

Since we remain enamored by ranking, let’s confront a very ugly fact: SC ranks first (or at least at the top) in political negligence, and Read to Succeed is just one more lesson in that embarrassing reality, one that has bitter consequences for the most vulnerable children in the state.

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