Open Letter to SC House and Senate Concerning Bill 3613 [UPDATED]

I am contacting you with an urgent caution about Bill 3613 and the historical failures of addressing reading in South Carolina through micromanaging legislation that has not resulted in improving home, community, individual equity or learning outcomes for students living in poverty, Black students, Emergent Bilinguals, or students with special needs.

Currently, I am in year 37 of being an educator in SC, serving as a high school English teacher at Woodruff High for 18 years before moving to teacher education at Furman University for the past 19 years. I entered education in SC in 1984, the first days of the accountability movement in our state.

Despite changing standards and high-stakes testing multiple times over the past four decades, political and public perception remains convinced our schools are failing, and that our students are, specifically, failing in reading achievement.

Read To Succeed was a serious mistake at its inception since it misreads both how students learn to read and how best to teach reading. Reading growth is not simple, and test scores are a stronger measure of poverty and social inequities than the state of student learning or the quality of teaching.

Bill 3613 is making the same mistake political leaders have been making since the 1980s, tinkering with prescriptive legislation aimed at our students and teachers while ignoring the overwhelming negative impact of inequity in our students’ homes and communities as well as the harmful negative learning and teaching conditions that persist in our schools.

I am attaching a full statement and a resource list that includes powerful and valuable recommendations from important national organizations (NCTE, ILA, NEPC) who have addressed how best to reform our schools in order to serve all students and to foster literacy in effective and compelling ways.

Please read and consider the resources I have provided, notably the nearly exhaustive collection of research on grade retention and NCTE’s Position Statement strongly rejecting grade retention as reading policy; below I highlight the should not/should recommended with research support from NEPC (see the resource list below):

  • Should not fund or endorse unproven private-vendor comprehensive reading programs or materials.[i]
  • Should not adopt “ends justify the means” policies aimed at raising reading test scores in the short term that have longer-term harms (for example, third-grade retention policies).[ii]
  • Should not prescribe a narrow definition of “scientific” or “evidence-based” that elevates one part of the research base while ignoring contradictory high-quality research.[iii]
  • Should not prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching reading, addressing struggling readers or English language learners (Emergent Bilinguals), or identifying and serving special needs students.
  • Should not prescribe such a “one-size-fits-all” approach to preparing teachers for reading instruction, since teachers need a full set of tools to help their students.
  • Should not ignore the limited impact on measurable student outcomes (e.g., test scores) of in-school opportunities to learn, as compared to the opportunity gaps that arise outside of school tied to racism, poverty, and concentrated poverty.[iv]
  • Should not prioritize test scores measuring reading, particularly lower-level reading tasks, over a wide range of types of evidence (e.g., literacy portfolios and teacher assessments[v]), or over other equity-based targets (e.g., access to courses and access to certified, experienced teachers), always prioritizing the goal of ensuring that all students have access to high-quality reading instruction.
  • Should not teacher-proof reading instruction or de-professionalize teachers of reading or teacher educators through narrow prescriptions of how to teach reading and serve struggling readers, Emergent Bilinguals, or students with special needs.
  • Should not prioritize advocacy by a small group of non-educators over the expertise and experiences of K-12 educators and scholars of reading and literacy.
  • Should not conflate general reading instruction policy with the unique needs of struggling readers, Emergent Bilinguals, and special needs students.

And therefore:

  • Should guarantee that all students are served based on their identifiable needs in the highest quality teaching and learning conditions possible across all schools:
    • Full funding to support all students’ reading needs;
    • Low student/teacher ratios;[vi]
    • Professionally prepared teachers with expertise in supporting all students with the most beneficial reading instruction, balancing systematic skills instruction with authentic texts and activities;
    • Full and supported instructional materials for learning to read, chosen by teachers to fit the needs of their unique group of students;
    • Intensive, research-based early interventions for struggling readers; and
    • Guaranteed and extensive time to read and learn to read daily.
  • Should support the professionalism of K-12 teachers and teacher educators, and should acknowledge the teacher as the reading expert in the care of unique populations of students.
  • Should adopt a complex and robust definition of “scientific” and “evidence-based.”
  • Should embrace a philosophy of “first, do no harm,” avoiding detrimental policies like grade retention and tracking.[vii]
  • Should acknowledge that reading needs across the general population, struggling readers, Emergent Bilinguals, and special needs students are varied and complex.
  • Should adopt a wide range of types of evidence of student learning.
  • Should prioritize, when using standardized test scores, longitudinal data on reading achievement as guiding evidence among a diversity of evidence for supporting instruction and the conditions of teaching and learning.
  • Should establish equity (input) standards as a balance to accountability (output) standards, including the need to provide funding and oversight to guarantee all students access to high-quality, certified teachers; to address inequitable access to experienced teachers; and to ensure supported, challenging and engaging reading and literacy experiences regardless of student background or geographical setting.
  • Should recognize that there is no settled science of reading and that the research base and evidence base on reading and teaching reading is diverse and always in a state of change.
  • Should acknowledge and support that the greatest avenue to reading for all students is access to books and reading in their homes, their schools, and their access to libraries (school and community).[viii]

I urge political leaders in SC to think differently about our students, our teachers, and our schools; notably, I strongly recommend that we seek ways to create homes, communities, and schools that allow our students to grow and excel in the literacy development.

Continuing to tinker with prescriptive and punitive reading legislation is a dereliction of political and ethical duty; we can and must do better, by doing differently.

Resources for reconsidering Bill 3613

National Professional Organizations/ Research

National Council of Teachers of English: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

International Literacy Association: Research Advisory: Dyslexia

National Education Policy Center: Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”

Grade Retention Research (current listing of research on grade retention)

Recommended Reading

Is there really a ‘science of reading’ that tells us exactly how to teach kids to read? (PDF)

The Critical Story of the “Science of Reading” and Why Its Narrow Plotline Is Putting Our Children and Schools at Risk (NCTE)

Fact Checking the “Science of Reading”: A Quick Guide for Teachers

Fact-checking Phonics, NRP, and NCTQ

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

UPDATED 23 February 2020: Mississippi Miracle or Mirage?: 2019 NAEP Reading Scores Prompt Questions, Not Answers

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

“Science of Reading” Advocacy Stumbles, Falls

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

IAP || Book || How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students

P.L. (Paul) Thomas

Professor, Education

Furman University

24 January 2021

[i] This is true even when the program is generally understood to be of high quality. See Gonzalez, N. (2018, November 26). When evidence-based literacy programs fail. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(4), 54-58. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

See also International Reading Association (2002). What is evidence-based reading instruction? Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

Office of the Inspector General. (2006). The Reading First program’s grant application process. Final inspection report. Washington, DC: US Department of Education. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[ii] See the sources linked at Thomas, P.L. (2014). Grade Retention Research. Radical Eyes for Equity. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[iii] See resources linked at Thomas, P. L. (2020). Understanding the “Science of Reading”: A Reader. Radical Eyes for Equity. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[iv] Carter, P.L. & Welner, K.G. (Eds) (2013). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give all children an even chance. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Reardon, S.F., Weathers, E.S., Fahle, E.M., Jang, H., & Kalogrides, D. (2019). Is separate still unequal? New evidence on school segregation and racial academic achievement gaps (No. 19-06). CEPA Working Paper. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[v] Valencia, S.W. (1998). Literacy Portfolios in Action. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

Strunk, K.O., Weinsten, T.L., & Makkonen, R. (2014). Sorting out the signal: Do multiple measures of teachers’ effectiveness provide consistent information to teachers and principals?. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(100). Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

Lavigne, D.A.L., & Good, D.T.L. (2020). Addressing teacher evaluation appropriately. APA Division 15 Policy Brief Series, 1(2). Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[vi] Schanzenbach, D.W. (2014). Does class size matter? Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[vii] Atteberry, A., LaCour, S.E., Burris, C., Welner, K.G., & Murphy, J. (2019). Opening the gates: Detracking and the International Baccalaureate. Teachers College Record, 121(9), 1-63.

See also the sources linked at Thomas, P.L. (2014). Grade retention research. Radical Eyes for Equity. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

[viii] Fryer, R., & Levitt, S. (2004). Understanding the black-white test score gap in the first two years of school. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 86(2), 447-464.

Lance, K.C., & Kachel, D.E. (2018). Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(7), 15-20. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK

Krashen, S. (2013). Access to books and time to read versus the common core state standards and tests. English Journal, 21-29. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from LINK