OPINION: Read to Succeed Poised to Fail Students – Greenville Journal 

OPINION: Read to Succeed Poised to Fail Students – Greenville Journal

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Florida Education Reform: “It’s a Trap”

In his stand-up comedy days, Steve Martin had a routine about a TV evangelist. This character had, he believed, stumbled across the perfect TV evangelist sale: He announced that he had spoken to God and God had assured him he was the only person God was speaking to—so viewers should not listen to any other TV evangelist who claimed to know the word of God.

Yes, this was a stinging satire of religion, but at its core, Martin is unmasking the scam grounded in claims too good to be true—the “miracle” claim.

Writing in support of South Carolina’s Read to Succeed legislation, Oran P. Smith makes this claim:

Read to Succeed was indeed a success in Florida. Since the year before the retention policy came into effect, the percentage of Florida students scoring low enough to qualify for retention has fallen by 40 percent. More Florida children are learning how to read during the developmentally critical period. The students at the bottom proved the biggest winners from Florida’s no-nonsense reforms.

Setting aside that the Florida policy is actually Just Read, Florida! (Read to Succeed is SC’s version), reading policies based on standards, high-stakes testing, and grade retention (very much a Florida model) are a subset of the Florida “miracle” scam driven by Jeb Bush—a set of policies grounded in rhetoric and ideology but regularly refuted by careful analysis.

Between leaving office as governor of Florida and running for president, in fact, Jeb Bush shuttled around the U.S. selling his education reform—not unlike Martin’s TV evangelist: “These reforms include assigning letter grades to schools, high-stakes testing, promotion and graduation requirements, bonus pay, a wide variety of alternative teacher credentialing policies, and various types of school choice mechanisms.”

Many Republican governors simply adopted the rhetoric and pushed these policies while entirely disregarding substantial evidence refuting the practices. As I have noted, SC has been on the Florida “miracle” bandwagon for some time.

Like all “miracle” claims, however, the Florida “miracle” must be confronted simply: “It’s a trap!”

The allure, now, reaches beyond the states and into the federal Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who is a one-trick pony for school choice.

Yet, as Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reports Florida’s education system — the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model — is in chaos.

Public schools now have been besieged by this scam for decades—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the Florida “miracle.”

Political careers and horrible education policy have been driven by the power of showmanship and snake-oil sales pitches.

For well over a decade, education “miracles” have nearly all been fully debunked. The need to continually refute claims that are too good to be true is part of the strategy in fact since the media are a willing customer to these lies and then the careful analysis needed to show the claims to be false is simply lost in the shuffle of the next “miracle” story.

So just as I have pointed out about charter advocacy, those pushing the Florida model for education reform and reading policy are trafficking in mostly rhetoric in the absence of evidence.

Smith’s jumbled plea to give Read to Succeed a chance is yet another trap; these claims fail his argument, and ultimately, students and teachers in SC:

  • Florida education reform and reading policy simply have not succeeded. And what is more troubling, key elements such as standards and high-stake testing, grade retention, school  choice, and charter schools have all been strongly discredited as effective reforms by dozens of studies over more than a decade. The big scam in promoting Florida reading policy is that grade retention based on high-stakes testing does bump test scores short term (which benefits politicians and their rhetoric), but that bump fades and the negative consequences of grade retention remain (see Jasper, 2016).
  • SC has no reading “crisis,” or education “crisis” for that matter. Crisis rhetoric is one of the most corrosive aspects of the education reform debate. First, low literacy test scores in SC are strongly correlated with high poverty rates; our state’s high poverty is not a crisis, but an on-going reality with deep historical roots nurtured by political cowardice and lingering racism. SC’s literacy struggles are cousins to our political failure to address race and social class inequity in our state. Shouting “reading crisis” is yet another distraction from the political will needed to address poverty. Simply put, education is not the great equalizer, and thus, education reform will not eradicate larger social problems.
  • Smith touts teacher buy-in for Read to Succeed—a dubious claim about legislation and policy that are imposed on teacher certification programs, schools, and teachers who have no option accept to comply. But the bigger issue about buy-in is worth a moment, again about Florida. In the early days of Florida reform, a school receiving multiple years of failing report card grades triggered parental school choice; however, only about 3% of parents took that choice, and then within a couple years, about half of those parents chose to return to the failing schools. So here is my challenge: Talk to current SC teachers when they are free to share their opinions and find some actual parents of school-aged children and teachers from Florida. The messages you receive about buy-in, I suspect, will cast a dark cloud on the claims by Smith.
  • The final, and maybe ugliest, trigger is framing reading policy as an either/or prospect—grade retention or “social promotion” (an outdated but powerful term that certainly spurs the All-American hatred of giving people anything—especially if we believe those “people” to be black or poor). Either/or thinking is always misleading since the research on grade retention also addresses what best serves students other than retention or simple promotion, and since grade retention based on test scores can and often retains students who have achieved passing grades for the academic year. Grade retention as the antithesis to “social promotion” has some really ugly roots in ignoring how grade retention has and will disproportionately impact negatively poor and black student.

While we may agree that Read to Succeed is “in its infancy,” as Smith concludes, we must also confront that it is a clone of policies and programs that have already failed; Read to Succeed is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig, while shouting platitudes you hope can be heard by those choosing to avoid falling into the same trap once again.

SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

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

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research

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)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

 

Think Tank Advocacy Reports Not Credible for Education Policy: SC Edition

The Palmetto Promise Institute‘s report authored by Adam CrainMoney doesn’t translate into student results, is a follow-up to their 2013 report also comparing South Carolina education to Florida education reform.

Although this report offers several charts detailing an analysis of SC and FL National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests data (some of which is aggregated by race, disabilities, and poverty, but focusing on 4th grade reading), the report proves to be overly simplistic and an incomplete picture of student achievement in both states—with the ham-fisted data analysis serving as a thin veneer for advocacy unsupported by valid research and a more nuanced analysis of data.

In short, this report proves to be significantly inadequate evidence to support the ideologically-driven recommendations offered at the end—recommendations this conservative think tank would make regardless of the evidence (mostly a mishmash of school choice policy). There simply is no credible link between the shallow analysis of SC/FL NAEP scores and the call for policy as solutions to the manufactured problems.

Let me outline here both the flaws of the data analysis and then the folly of the recommendations.

The foundational flaw of both reports is suggesting some sort of value in comparing SC to FL and the persistent but discredited claim that FL has successful education reform. In fact, the so-called Florida “miracle” has been strongly refuted, notably its grade-retention policy based on high-stakes test scores.

By comparison, SC is slightly more impoverished than FL, and SC (27%) has a higher percentage than FL (16%) of blacks (both metrics used in the report analysis). However, this report from PPI makes no effort to show how their raw comparisons are actually apples-to-apples, or valid.

Another analysis of NAEP data that adjusts for factors impacting test scores reveals a much more nuanced and important picture, one that exposes a huge flaw with the FL model of reform [1] and depending on test data.

While adjusted trend data on NAEP continues to show 4th grade FL reading scores better than SC scores, by 8th grade (see Table 6B1, 2013 data) SC (269.5) and FL (272.3) have nearly identical adjusted scores.

Here is a key point about FL’s retention policy: Retaining students can inflate short-term test data, but those gains erode over time. Further, grade retention [2] maintains a strong correlation with students dropping out of school and an inverse correlation with students receiving a diploma (see Jasper, 2016 [3]).

Ultimately, the data analysis and charts in this report are overly simplistic on purpose because PPI has an agenda: argue against increased school funding and promote school choice.

The report uses bold face, lazy math, and insufficient statistical methods to dramatize a baseless claim: “Simple funding comparisons indicate quite the opposite. Over the twelve year period between 1999 and 2011, South Carolina spent a total of $6,920 more per student, or an average of $692 per year.

Without proper statistical analysis, using controls and making causal claims, this raw data approach, like the NAEP analysis, means almost nothing.

The body of educational research, in fact, shows that funding does matter (see Baker, 2016) [4].

Both, then, the NAEP analysis and the related argument that SC school funding is somehow excessive/wasteful are statistically inadequate and useless for making the recommendations at the end of the report.

Those recommendations fall into two broad categories: accountability and school choice.

SC and FL jumped on the accountability bandwagon early, about three decades ago, and remain completely unsatisfied with their educational outcomes, despite huge amounts of tax dollars and immeasurable time spent on ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

Calling for accountability ignores the research base that shows accountability based on standards and testing has failed, will continue to fail:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum….

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012)

The evidence on school choice also contradicts the report because choice fails to increase student achievement, but it is strongly associated with increasing segregation and inequity (see here and here).

Let’s summarize the major points of the report:

  • The report claims SC lags FL in academic achievement and education reform while spending more per pupil. However, the analysis offered here is an incomplete picture and statistically flawed. None of the claims made in the report are proven, and more nuanced and longitudinal analyses of NAEP greatly erode the premise of PPI’s report (grounded also in the debunked Florida “miracle” claim).
  • The report’s major recommendations about school funding, accountability, and school choice are all strongly contradicted by the research base, which the report fails to acknowledge.

Ultimately, as a colleague responded when I shared this report, PPI has published “a five page Op-Ed with bar graphs,” and I would add, not a very good one at that.

SC should in no way be influenced by this report when making education policy.

However, SC should heed a kernel the report’s conclusion: “The disparity between the stewardship of resources in Florida and our struggling education system in South Carolina is apparent.”

As I have detailed, while most educational rankings and comparisons prove to be hokum, what evidence from our schools and reform policies shows is that SC ranks first in political negligence.

Ironically, this report is calling for more negligence in the pursuit of market ideology.


[1] See evidence discrediting Florida “miracle” and FL’s reading policyhow SC could benefit from looking at Oklahoma, not FL; and why FL reform is harmful for students and literacy.

[2] See the National Council of Teachers of English’s Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing:

Grade retention, the practice of holding students back to repeat a grade, does more harm than good:

  • 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.

[3] Jasper’s abstract captures the ultimate failure of FL’s reform:

In 2003-2004 approximately 23,000 third graders were retained in Florida under the third grade retention mandate outlined in the A+ Plan. Researchers in previous studies found students who were retained faced difficulty in catching up to their peers, achieving academically, and obtaining a high school diploma (Anderson, Jimerson, & Whipple, 2005; Andrew, 2014; Fine & Davis, 2003; Jimerson, 1999; Moser, West & Hughes, 2012; Nagaoka, 2005; and Ou & Reynolds, 2010). In this study I examined educational outcomes of students retained in a large southwest Florida school district under the A+ Plan in 2003-2004. I used a match control group, consisting of similarly nonretained students, who scored at level one on the Grade 3 Reading FCAT. I then compared the control group to the retained group. I also compared achievement levels on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT of the retained and non-retained group. I evaluated longitudinal data, for both the retained and non-retained students, and found 93% of the retained students continued to score below proficiency (below a level 3) seven years after retention on the Grade 10 Reading FCAT as compared with the 85.8% of the non-retained students. I also compared standard diploma acquisition of the retained and non-retained group. The non-retained group was 14.7% more likely to obtain a standard high school diploma than the retained group. Finally, I used data from previous studies to extrapolate economic outcomes.

[4] Baker’s analysis has key points detailed in the Executive Summary (p. i):

baker funding 2016.png

Today in “Don’t Believe It”

More often than not, mainstream media and think tanks produce claims about education that are without credibility.

Sometimes the source is also lacking credibility, but many times, the source has good intentions.

Today in “Don’t Believe It,” let’s consider both types.

First, NCTQ—a think tank entirely lacking in credibilityissued a report claiming that teacher education is lousy, basing their claims on a fumbled review of textbooks assigned and course syllabi.

Don’t believe it because NCTQ bases the claims on one weak study about what every teacher should know, and then did a review of textbooks and syllabi that wouldn’t be allowed in undergraduate research courses.

See the full review here.

Next, despite genuinely good intentions, Kecio Greenho, regional executive director of Reading Partners Charleston, claims in an Op-Ed for The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) that South Carolina’s Read to Succeed, which includes provision for third-grade retention based on high-stakes test scores, “is a strong piece of legislation that gives support to struggling readers by identifying them as early as possible.”

Don’t believe it because Read to Succeed is a copy-cat of similar policies across the U.S. that remain trapped in high-stakes testing and grade retention, although decades of research have shown retention to be very harmful to children.

See this analysis of Read to Succeed, the research base on grade retention, and the National Council of Teachers of English’s resolution on grade retention and high-stakes testing.

When you are confronted with claims about education, too often the source and the claim are without merit, but you have to be aware that those with good intentions can make false claims as well.

Dear Florida: Mean People Suck

Dear Florida:

I know it is impolite to use harsh language and teachers often discourage students from resorting to cliches, but I am hard-pressed to find anything better suited to my concern about education policy in Florida (and Mississippi, and South Carolina, along with another 10+ states) than reminding political leaders and the public in your state: Mean people suck.

And as disturbing as it is when adults are mean to adults, there simply is no way to justify adults being mean to children—or in the case of misguided and uninformed education policy in Florida (and Mississippi, and South Carolina), adults being mean to some children (mostly black, brown, and poor).

I take this opportunity to reach out to you, Florida, because there is a way out of this mean streak: Fewer 3rd-graders could be held back this year.

First, let me note that the avenue to a kind and equitable education system is not examining whether or not your (yet again) new high-stakes tests are valid, but recognizing that grade retention is discredited by a large body of research and grade retention is not a credible form of literacy policy.

Notably, the National Council of Teachers of English, the largest organization of English teachers in the U.S., has a clear position statement against grade retention based on high-stakes testing:

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English strongly oppose legislation mandating that children, in any grade level, who do not meet criteria in reading be retained.

And be it further resolved that NCTE strongly oppose the use of high-stakes test performance in reading as the criterion for student retention.

As well, education policies such as grade retention linked to high-stakes testing disproportionately and negatively impact black, brown, and poor children.

Simply put, grade retention as a policy must be acknowledged as punishing children for the sake of punishing children.

None the less, Florida has become a flawed model for educational accountability across the U.S.

So, as a life-long educator in SC, where that model is now turning my home state into yet another place where mean people suck, I ask that Florida end grade retention and use your ill-got influence to start a new trend in education reform—one that rejects punitive education policy and chooses instead to treat all children with dignity, to provide all children an equitable opportunity to learn.

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

Hartsville, South Carolina sits just north of I-20 and north-west of I-95 about a 30-minute drive from Florence.

Geography matters in SC when discussing education because the state has a long and tarnished history of pockets of poverty and educational inequity now commonly known as the Corridor of Shame [1], a name coined in a documentary addressing that inequity as it correlates with the I-95 corridor running mostly north and south paralleling the SC coast.

The town’s schools are part of Darlington County School District that serves approximately equal numbers of white and black students, although significantly skewed by poverty as reflected in the district’s 2014 report card detailing tested students:

Darlington 2014

Hartsville is the focus of an upcoming PBS documentary co-produced by Sam Chaltain, who writes about the community:

Take Hartsville. Until recently, no one there had ever asked Thompson or her colleagues what they noticed about their child passengers on the bus, or thought to connect their observations to the behavior teachers might witness in the classroom. Moreover, while Hartsville’s teachers were expected to be knowledgeable about their students’ academic standing, they were not expected to be attuned to their psychological states.

That began to change in 2011, when the community announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements – including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.

This focus on Hartsville specifically and SC more broadly is important for understanding the entire education reform movement in the U.S. for several reasons.

The standards/testing issues in SC are complex (the anti-Common Core movement in SC is mostly ill-informed and falls along libertarian lines, for example) and represent well patterns found across the country during the mostly state-based accountability era (see below).

SC was one of the first accountability states, and we have had about 5-6 sets of standards and new tests over 30-plus years (see below). Throughout those years, almost no one in political leadership has acknowledged SC being in the bottom quartile of poverty in the U.S.—huge pockets of poverty and affluence—is the real educational crisis.

Like New Orleans, I think, SC is a perfect model of all that is wrong with the education reform debate.

I recommend viewing the 180 Days focus on Hartsville through the complicated and often jumbled politics and education reform over the past three decades in SC, much of which I have addressed in the reader offered below, organized by major accountability issues and policies:

Value-Added Methods of Teacher Evaluation:

South Carolina Officially Vamboozled

Review [UPDATED]: “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (League of Women Voters of SC)

SC and Common Core:

South Carolina and Common Core: A Next Step?

Death to Common Core! Long Live Failed Education Policy!

Should SC Ditch Common Core?

SC, Reading Policy, and Grade Retention:

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

SC and Opt-Out:

SC Parents Warned: “no state provision…to opt-out of state-or district-wide testing”

SC, Oklahoma, and Florida:

GreenvilleOnline: SC should choose Oklahoma, not Florida

SC’s Former Superintendent Zais:

SC’s Zais Mistake

SC and Accountability:

Welcome to SC: A Heaping Stumbling-Bumbling Mess of Ineptitude

SC and Charter Schools:

Should SC Increase Charter School Investment?

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

SC and Exit Exams:

Ending Exit Exams a Start, But Not Enough

SC’s Conservative Leadership:

Conservative Leadership Poor Stewardship of Public Funds

[1] This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary support examining the film in my educational documentary May experience course.