Third Grade Teachers–Tell Those Kids to Read, Dammit!

With the anticipated release of third grade reading scores to Oklahoma schools next week, about 8,000 children are just days away from having their future inexorably and permanently altered.

If we extrapolate from last year’s figures, this will translate to about one out of every six 3rd graders, many of whom will be given the opportunity to experience third grade one more time.

As you know, this idea of retaining eight-year-olds came from the fertile mind of Florida Governor Jeb Bush back in 2002. This was shortly after his big brother George pushed his signature education bill–No Child Left Behind (NCLB)–through Congress, arguably the biggest federal intrusion into states’ rights in American history.

The worst part of this reform is that the majority of children who will inevitably suffer from this law represent some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in our communities.

To be honest, retaining students in any grade, whether driven by standardized test scores, poor grades or misbehavior, has long been popular in American education. Even among teachers and administrators, retention is often seen as a well-meaning way either to give a child “the gift of a year” to grow, or more punitively as a way to threaten and cajole miscreants.

It also goes without saying that retaining a child in any grade is a momentous decision in the life of that child and that family. Parents, full of hope and dreams for their child, may find their view of their son or daughter changed forever. It very likely will negatively impact the way the child views himself or herself as a learner.

Given the high stakes, don’t we want to be sure we get this decision right?

I am not arguing that retention is always the wrong decision. But, it is a decision that is best made by those people who know the child best–his or her parents, teachers, principals, and other school professionals.

The decision should not be made by a 50-question multiple choice test administered by a New Hampshire-based testing company given in a 90-minute setting on one day in early April, based on a dictum enacted into law by disengaged, ill-informed politicians.

Simply said, mandating that an eight-year-old be retained based on his or her performance on ANY standardized test is a bad, dumb idea for which there is limited research to support.

Laws like third-grade retention assume that children can be punished into excellence and achievement, and while that is a logical extension of the Oklahoma policy towards schools and teachers (see A-F and TLE), there isn’t any evidence to support that it creates smarter, healthier, happier adults. And, as we have learned, taking education advice from the Bushes is like taking political advice from Jimmy Carter.

The Oklahoma RSA law starts with the assumption that these little eight-year-old slackers just aren’t being sufficiently browbeaten. These kids could read, but, dammit– they’re just holding out on us!

And teachers, don’t waste our time telling us sad stories about these kids, about the ones who come to school underfed or neglected, or the ones who are new to America and just learning English, or the ones with cognitive or physical impairments, or the one whose older cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting last weekend. We can’t allow these kids’ lives to get in the way of their schooling.

So, third grade teachers–just tell these slackers to learn to read, dammit! Because they will need to “read to learn” in fourth grade, dammit. And, as blogger Peter Greene once said, there is no better pedagogical technique for encouraging 8-year-olds than insisting strongly, dammit! And I trust Peter Greene because he is a highly entertaining and really smart individual, dammit!

(Sorry, writing about RSA just makes me want to yell, “Dammit, I’m Mad!” And, if you didn’t know it, “Dammit I’m Mad” is “Dammit I’m Mad” backwards too.)

Maybe I need one of these.


But, I digress. The question we really need to examine is does retention even work?

While there may be some anecdotal evidence that retention may work for some children sometimes, the overwhelming research evidence indicates that retention is bad for kids.

As a middle school administrator for the past 13 years, I can tell you from my empirical data that the odds of retention being a positive intervention for struggling 13- and 14-year-olds is about one in 10, at best. We do it very rarely, and only after considerable deliberation and conference with the student and his or her parents.

And it is still rarely successful.

In their well-documented and very useful book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, respected researchers David Berliner and Gene V. Glass, discuss the issue of retention at length and include this conclusion:

The decision to retain a student subsequently results in that student having more negative outcomes in all areas of academic achievement, and in social emotional areas of development such as peer relationships, self-esteem, and classroom behavior.

Additionally, Berliner and Glass found that there is greatly increased likelihood of retained students dropping out of school, being suspended and having high absenteeism. Not surprisingly, retention policies impact a disproportionate number of poor and minority children, further exacerbating the “achievement gap.”

So what do we do instead? Just promote these kids knowing they cannot read on grade level?

We know that the idea of social promotion is widely derided by people in and out of the public education field, perhaps justly so. Let’s be honest, there is something about social promotion that smacks of educators abandoning our responsibility. Fortunately, this is not an either or situation. Instead of retention, what struggling students need is more attention.

Look at it this way. Depending on whose figures you use, it costs, on average, about 9,000 dollars to retain a child in Oklahoma (the cost of an extra year of school). By not retaining children, schools will save thousands of dollars in costs, not to mention all the human costs related to high drop-out rates and behavior issues related to retention.

Let’s do the math. If we retain even half of those students in Oklahoma who will likely fail the third grade reading test this year (about 4,000), this equates to about 36 MILLION dollars this year alone. This is money that will be taken out of school budgets already strapped due to multiple consecutive years of inadequate funding.

What could we do for students with this money? Instead of retention, what about using these funds for extra attention for these children?

What if this $9,000 followed each student as they moved into fourth and fifth grade and was used instead for individual tutoring, summer programs, wrap-around services, classroom resources, high interest reading materials, or even smaller class sizes.

Retaining students is a shortcut answer to a problem that actually works against our goals as educators and as a society. Our state would  do better to attend to our struggling young students with programmatic changes than with this disproven and mean-spirited “hold them back” approach.

Let us attend to our struggling students, not condemn them to the false promise of improvement through grade retention.

There is a better way, dammit!

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9 thoughts on “Third Grade Teachers–Tell Those Kids to Read, Dammit!

  1. I agree with you on all points regarding retention at third grade. Furthermore, I believe it is yet another way to silent and humiliate veteran educators who KNOW BETTER. It is unfortunate that those in power have such a narrow “vision”, for what equates as “proficient” and what education is about in the first place for our young learners. What a waste of money, human capital and precious time this legislation has created. We could have used those resources to help so many struggling readers…

  2. Yes!! As a 3rd grade teacher…I feel a little sick as I think about the “test score reveal”. I’m excited for some of my students…but so sad for others. I remember passing out the sealed envelopes containing test scores last year. Students were told that the envelope contained important information for their parents that needed to be signed and returned. I didn’t need to tell them what was inside they already knew. It was a happy day for some and a sad, sad day for others. As hard as passing the letters out was…the next day was harder. I comforted crying children…telling them “I believe in you, you’re smart, kind, creative, one test can’t determine who you are, and how successful you’ll be”. But how could they believe my words when 1 test was going to determine their immediate future??
    Thank you for speeking up on behalf of these precious children!!

  3. Never made the connection that “Dammit I’m mad” is a palindrome! 🙂 I love the things I learn from you, Mr. Miller! 🙂

  4. What a logical and great idea for students lacking reading skills!!! For sure, the $9000 would be better spent this way. And as you note, that $9000 is likely the tip of the iceberg in terms of added costs and misery.

    If there’s one best reason for actual organized pre-K education, I’d say it’s to give extra extra reading attention to those who need it and extra practice to those who don’t. AND I don’t mean starting to drill reading into these kids; let them experience hearing the books read, working to love books and reading – the things these kids are not getting elsewhere.

    I forget the numbers but the advantages for kids being read to for 30 minutes a day and for libraries just being in the neighborhoods are phenomenal. My opinion: local education communities (LECs) can help those kids not able to get help at home (often for understandable reasons)!!!

  5. Learning to read is not like learning to tie your shoes. We do not know how to teach thousands of children to gain expected amounts of knowledge by reading. We have tens of thousand test scores telling us.
    Weather it is vision, hearing, or other abnormalities. We do not know how to teach all to read at prescribed levels.
    Notice that there are no experts from our education colleges, nor experts from the OU Health Science Center, taking part in this discussion. There are no experts from our graduate Schools of Early Childhood Development in this discussion.
    A school district in Kennewick, Oregon (?) has done enormous work in this area – Two books available at Amazon.
    You may be the first to suggest this reform is based on a supposition that has been tried and not successful. The usual for business led reforms.
    John Rex, deceased, was a tireless leader in teaching all to read.(Oklahoma City).
    Why not try alternative ways to learn?

      • They will lose their jobs. I was able to talk to them when I was involved.
        The soft bigotry of low expectations.
        It seams this is so difficult, career teachers choose not to teach reading in F rated schools. That may not affect the reading level of the children, but it does not allow or encourage alternative curriculum. Very low reading children read better as they age, and find alternative ways to acquire knowledge.

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