Category Archives: reading

“Hunting Scapegoats”: WWII Literacy Crisis and Current Education Reform

“Historians often mention World War II as a time when expectations for schooling and literacy really took off,” explains Deborah Brandt, “when what was considered an adequate level of education moved from fourth grade to twelfth grade in a matter of a few years” (p. 485).

National concerns about literacy can be traced to literacy tests for soldiers in WWI, when 25% of recruits were deemed illiterate. While this data appear to have prompted a greater focus on literacy in U.S. public schools, WWII data on literacy again suggested far too many people in the U.S. struggled with basic literacy. As Brandt notes:

Even more profoundly, though, World War II changed the rationale for mass literacy. Literacy was irrevocably transformed from a nineteenth-century moral imperative into a twentieth-century production imperative—transformed from an attribute of a “good” individual into an individual “good,” a resource or raw material vital to national security and global competition. In the process, literacy was turned into something extractable, something measurable, some-thing rentable, and thereby something worthy of rational investment. (p. 485)

From the early to mid-twentieth century, then, a powerful dynamic was created among racial integration, military-based measurement of IQ and literacy, and changing expectations for public education.

Brandt sees those relationships in current education reform ideologies and claims:

We can find eerie parallels between the selective service system of the mid-twentieth century and the public educational system of the early twenty-first century. There is the atmosphere of high anxiety around literacy, rapidly changing standards, an imposition of those standards onto more and more people, a search (largely futile) for reliable testing, a context of quick technological development, a heightened concern for world dominance, and a linking of literacy with national security, productivity, and total quality control. This is what happens when literacy links up with competition, with the need to win the war. It is this competition that justifies the strip mining of literacy, the ranking of skill, the expendability of human potential, and the production of just-in-time literacy. It is the blueprint for the Knowledge Economy. (p. 499)

Calls of a literacy crisis during WWII are roots of similar cries of education crisis spanning from the early 1980s until today. And throughout either era, the complexities of the problems are ignored in order to force agendas that have less to do with education than with serving larger social and political goals—often ones benefitting the privileged at the expense of the impoverished and marginalized.

In 1942, Lou LaBrant confronted the misleading conclusions drawn about low literacy rates among WWII draftees:

The induction of American youth into the armed forces, and the attendant examinations and classifications have called attention to a matter long of concern to those who teach reading or who are devoted to the cause of democracy: the fact that in a land which purports to offer universal education we have a considerable number of youth who cannot read intelligently. We are disturbed now because we want these men to be able to read military directions, and they cannot. A greater tragedy is that they are and have been unable to read with sufficient understanding to be constructive peace-time citizens.

As is to be expected, immediate explanations have been forthcoming, and immediate pointing-of-fingers has begun. Most of the explanations and pointing have come from those who have had least to do with teaching reading, and who are least conversant with the real problem. Moreover, as is again to be expected, the diagnosis is frequently in terms of prejudice or pet complaint, and could be used in other situations as logically. Many are hunting scapegoats; there are scores of “I-told-you-so’s.” It is best to look at the situation critically. (p. 240)

LaBrant recognized, as a teacher and scholar of literacy, that public blame for the low literacy rates suffered from both a lack of expertise about literacy and a number of complicating factors. For example, the standard for literacy changed from generation to generation, and WWII experienced an expanded pool of recruits due to integration, which of course included African Americans and impoverished men who had been systematically denied educational opportunities.

The political and public response to low literacy rates among the military in WWII included blaming progressive education and calling for a back-to-basics focus, as LaBrant addressed:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want) . Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

The pattern identified by LaBrant foreshadows the rise of high-quality writing instruction in the 1970s-1980s that was blunted by the accountability era’s focus on standards and high-stakes testing.

But, as LaBrant outlined, public and political blame placed on progressivism was misguided, and ultimately misleading:

Before we jump to such an absurd conclusion, let’s take a minute to think of a few things:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and back- ward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Again, consider the pattern: Implement new and developing tests (literacy tests during WWII), identify a problem related to education, create a scapegoat, and then call for a return to traditional drill-based education. Does this sound familiar?

Now add what was not being addressed in 1942, as detailed by LaBrant:

An easy way to evade the question of improved living and better schools for our underprivileged is to say the whole trouble is lack of drill. Lack of drill! Leťs be honest. Lack of good food; lack of well-lighted homes with books and papers; lack of attractive, well equipped schools, where reading is interesting and meaningful; lack of economic security permitting the use of free schools—lack of a good chance, the kind of chance these unlettered boys are now fighting to give to others. Surround children with books, give them healthful surroundings and an opportunity to read freely. They will be able to read military directions—and much more. (p. 241)

Seven-plus decades ago, public and political outrage was willing to attack a straw man, a scapegoat—progressive education—but was unwilling to confront inequity, poverty, and the linger scar of racial segregation.

Again, sound familiar?

See Also

CRISI IN EDUCATION!

Lack 1942

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

I remember vividly during one of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses watching the president state that he was seeking education policy that would ensure that all third graders would be able to read; he did the emphatic fist with thumb slightly extended to prove he was serious.

I also remember thinking—and possibly saying aloud to the TV—”No, they won’t.”

It is a silly political thing to pretend that the teaching of reading is somehow determined by political policy. It is a ridiculous thing to think that naming that political policy something clever matters as well.

But it also a silly and ridiculous thing that seemingly will never end.

In South Carolina, the state senate is considering Read to Succeed, a reading policy built in part on the Florida formula (Just Read, Florida!) that has a great deal of political support but has been unmasked as yet another misleading education “miracle” that wasn’t.

The most flawed aspect of Read to Succeed is that it mimics Florida’s third-grade retention policy that will retain third graders based on standardized test scores.

The Education Oversight Committee (EOC) has examined the Read to Succeed act, and offers an At a Glance on retention and lessons learned from Florida.

While the At a Glance appears research-based and comprehensive, the Read to Succeed act and the EOC support actually represent what Matthew DiCarlo has identified as a central problem with policy built on a misuse of data:

The recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the companion Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) was predictably exploited by advocates to argue for their policy preferences. This is a blatant misuse of the data for many reasons that I have discussed here many times before, and I will not repeat them….

But they are not policy evidence. Period….

But, as I’ve said before, there’s a very large group of us out here who are willing to applaud any high-level leader who refuses to misuse evidence, whether or not we happen to agree with their substantive policy positions. I’m sure there are leaders like that out there, and I wish they were more visible.

In the exact same way as DiCarlo details above about misusing NAEP data for political gain, the EOC is failing in its support of Read to Succeed directly and third-grade retention inclusive.

The EOC’s At a Glance cites only four sources, one of which, Greene and Winters, has been reviewed, concluding:

The report reviewed here concludes that Florida’s recently instituted policy of test-based retention has helped academically struggling elementary school students improve their reading. According to the review, the report overstates the effect of retention on student achievement.

Further, the At a Glance fails to identify a strong body of research that refutes the claims made about the Florida formula and a four-decades body of research that rejects grade retention (See Sources below).

Reading problems are not primarily in our schools. Reading and all literacy problems are overwhelmingly reflections of larger social problems related to inequity and poverty.

Reading and literacy solutions, then, are not to be found in legislation and clever program names—especially when those policies are built on partial and politically manipulated evidence, and especially when those name serve to mislead.

SC is considering using partial evidence a reading policy better named Retain to Impede.

Recommended

Commentary: When our students are living in a book desert:

But Xavier wanted a different life; he wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to write about his experiences. What should he read?

I compiled a list of my favorite books, making sure to include teen favorites, books about the medical profession and topics that might speak to a kid growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood. When I gave him the list, he contemplated it with his usual care, made a small check mark next to the books that looked interesting, and looked up. “Where can I get them?” he asked.

And that’s where our story stalls out. Because that’s when I realized that Xavier was living in a book desert.

SOURCES

“Florida Miracle” 

Review of Closing the Racial Achievement Gap, Madhabi Chatterji

Water into Wine?, Julian Vasquez Heilig

Lurking in the Bushes, Julian Vasquez Heilig

Parsing the Florida “Miracle,” Diane Ravitch

The Test-Based Evidence on the “Florida Formula,” Matthew Di Carlo

Editorial: Florida needs no advice from Jeb Bush on education policy, Jac Versteeg

Review of Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind, Derek C. Briggs

Grade Retention

Hold Back to Move Forward? Early Grade Retention and Student Misbehavior, Umut Özek

Test-based accountability has become the new norm in public education over the last decade. In many states and school districts nation-wide, student performance in standardized tests plays an important role in high-stakes decisions such as grade retention. This study examines the effects of grade retention on student misbehavior in Florida, which requires students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the 3rd grade. The regression discontinuity estimates suggest that grade retention increases the likelihood of disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the years that follow. The findings also suggest that these adverse effects are concentrated among economically disadvantaged students

Retaining Students in Grade A Literature Review of the Effects of Retention on Students’ Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes, Nailing Xia, Sheila Nataraj Kirby (2009)

Our review of these 91 studies indicates that grade retention is associated with gender, race, SES, age for grade, student mobility, family and parental characteristics, prior academic achievement, prior behavioral and socioemotional development, and student health. Converging evidence suggests that grade retention alone is not an effective intervention strategy for improving academic and longer-term life outcomes. In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. Although some studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention, these gains are usually short-lived and tend to fade over time. Past research has consistently shown that retained students are at significantly increased risk of dropping out of school. Although only a few studies have examined the effects of retention on postsecondary outcomes, the available evidence suggests negative effects on enrollment in postsecondary education and on employment outcomes in adulthood. Overall, the literature indicates mixed findings on attitudinal, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes among the retained students….Our review found fruitful avenues of research, most notably the impact of supportive interventions (such as early identification of at-risk students, academic instructional services provided in and out of school, and different types of intervention strategies) on proximal and future student outcomes.

The Spillover Effects of Grade-Retained Classmates: Evidence from Urban Elementary Schools, Michael A. Gottfired, American Journal of Education 119 (May 2013)

Retention, Social Promotion, and Academic Redshirting: What Do We Know and Need to Know?, Nancy Frey, Remedial and Special Education, volume 26, number 6, November/December 2005, pages 332-346

The evidence gathered in the last 30 years on the practice of retention suggests that it is academically ineffective and is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health. The seeds of failure may be sown early for students who are retained, as they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the trajectory of adverse outcomes appears to continue into young adulthood, when wages and postsecondary educational opportunities are depressed.

Dropout Rates after High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago’s Efforts to End Social Promotion, Elaine M. Allensworth, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 341-364

Alternative to Grade Retention, Jimerson, Pletcher, and Kerr (2005)

Given the accumulating evidence that grade retention is an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention, it is imperative that school administrators advocate for “promotion plus” policies that depend on effective, evidence-based interventions. The issue for secondary school educators is twofold. Not only must educators determine whether retention is appropriate for a given student, they also need to address the negative academic, social, and emotional consequences for students who were retained in earlier grades. Very often the student’s original difficulties persist, or more likely worsen, as their school career progresses.

Winning the Battle and Losing the War, Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple (Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 39(4), 2002)

Considering the results of this review of research examining the association between grade retention and high school dropout and other reviews of research addressing the efficacy of grade retention (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001a, 2001b; Smith & Shepard, 1987, 1988), we must move beyond the use of grade retention as an intervention strategy and attempt to implement those strategies research has demonstrated to be effective (Jimerson, 2001a). Educational professionals, researchers, parents, and policymakers would be remiss to overlook the implications of research that demonstrate the association between grade retention and school dropout. Furthermore, a new imperative has emerged, where the onus is on programs training future educational professionals to disseminate the results of the recent research presented in this review. It is crucial that we transcend limited solutions and begin to consider student developmental and achievement trajectories in order to reinforce and strengthen pathways that promote social and cognitive competence and lead to academic success.

Does Retention (Repeating a Grade) Help Struggling Learners?

Some stakeholders in Florida believe that the “hard line in the sand” created by mandatory, test-based retention created a motivational difference in teachers and parents…, since it is thought that many of the same learning supports were being provided to struggling students prior to the policy. This may be the case for test score gains close to the retention year, but given the well-known longer-term negative effect of retention on drop-out rates (e.g., Allensworth, 2005) as well as the assured delayed entry into the workforce, Florida’s evidence falls far short of even suggesting that retention is the only or best way to motivate a real positive difference for struggling students, nor has it contradicted the overwhelming evidence against retention prior and since.

What Doesn’t Work, Smith and Shepard (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1987)

The Lesson of the Cupcakes: Fixing Schools by Resisting Gimmicks and Heeding Evidence, Kevin Welner

Exploring the Association Between Grade Retention and Dropout, Jimerson, et al. (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 7, pp. 51-62, 2002)

Ultimately, the research is unequivocal in identifying that grade retention does not appear to address the needs of these students at risk of academic failure. Findings from this study should not be misinterpreted as an indication that retention was an effective intervention strategy for the retained students who did not drop out of high school. There is a need for further research comparing the retained students who completed high school with matched comparison groups of similarly low achieving but socially promoted students. This study highlights the association of early socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment and high school dropout among a group of retained students. These findings have direct implications for school psychologists and other educational professionals. In particular, rather than focusing on the unsupported academic intervention of grade retention, it is time to implement prevention and intervention programs that have been empirically demonstrated to meet the needs of these students in facilitating both positive academic success and socio-emotional adjustment.

Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy, Xia and Glennia (part 1)

Decades of research suggest that grade retention does not work as a panacea for poor student performance. The majority of research fails to find compelling evidence that retention improves long-term student achievement. An overwhelmingly large body of studies have consistently demonstrated negative academic effects of retention. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have almost unanimously found that early retention during kindergarten to grade three is harmful, both academically and emotionally. [1] Many studies find that retention does not necessarily lead to increased work effort among students as predicted.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention, Xia and Glennia (part 2)

Grade Retention: The Gap Between Research and Practice, Xia and Glennia (part 3)

The majority of published studies and decades of research indicate that there is usually little to be gained, and much harm that may be done through retaining students in grade. Yet, many educators continue to use retention as a way to improve student achievement and claim that it produces positive results. The consequence is while a growing body of studies show that retention does not improve academic performance and has a number of negative side effects, more and more states and school districts have adopted retention policy in an effort to enhance the educational accountability.

Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention, Shepard and Smith (Educational Leadership, May 1990)

Grade Retention [a synthesis]

Social Promotion – In Comparison to Grade Retention, Advantages and Disadvantages, Different Perspectives, Jere Brophy

Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century, Shane R. Jimerson (School Psychology Review, 2001, Volume 30, No. 3, pp. 420-437)

A Synthesis of Grade Retention Research: Looking Backward and Moving Forward, Shane R. Jimerson (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 6, pp. 47-59, 2001)

In looking backwards at the retention research and previous reviews and meta-analyses, a consistent theme emerges—grade retention is not an empirically supported intervention. As reflected in the results of the three meta-analyses described above, the confluence of results from research during the past century fails to demonstrate achievement, socioemotional, or behavioral advantages of retaining students. Moreover, the research consistently demonstrates that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.

Evaluating Kindergarten Retention Policy, Hong and Raudenbush (September 2006)

First, Do No Harm, Jay P. Heubert (Educational Leadership, December 2002/January 2003)

The Facts on Education: Should Students Be Allowed to Fail Grades?

[1] See Krashen, S. (2013, May). Need Children Read ‘Proficiently’ by Grade Three? Language Magazine; Deborah A. Byrnes, and Kaoru Yamamoto, 1985, “Academic Retention of Elementary Pupils: An Inside Look,” Education, 106(2), 208-14; Peg Dawson, 1998, “A Primer on Student Grade Retention: What the Research Says,” NASP Communique, 26(8); Shane R. Jimerson et al., 1997, “A Prospective, Longitudinal Study of the Correlates and Consequences of Early Grade Retention,” Journal of School Psychology, 35(1), 3-25; Panayota Y. Mantzicopoulos, 1997, “Do Certain Groups of Children Profit from Early Retention? A Follow-Up Study of Kindergartners with Attention Problems,” Psychology in the Schools, 34(2), 115-27; Samuel J. Meisels and Fong-Ruey Liaw, 1993, “Failure in Grade: Do Retained Students Catch Up?” Journal of Educational Research, 87(2), 69-77; Judy Temple, Arthur Reynolds and Suh-Ruu Ou, 2001, “Grade Retention and School Dropout: Another Look at the Evidence,” The CEIC Review, 10(5), 5-6 & 21; Charles L. Thompson and Elizabeth K. Cunningham, 2000, “Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for Policy,” Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education Digest, 161, 1-5; Deneen M. Walters and Sherry B. Borgers, 1995, “Student Retention: Is It Effective?” School Counselor, 42(4).

New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

When the Common Core debates drift toward advocacy or critiques of the standards themselves, I have refused, mostly, to engage with that conversation because I believe debating the quality of CC concedes too much. I remain opposed to CC regardless of the quality of the standards because of the following reasons: (1) CC cannot and will not be decoupled from the caustic influence of high-stakes testing, (2) all bureaucratic and mandated standards de-professionalize teaching, (3) accountability/standards/testing as a reform paradigm has failed and nothing about the CC iteration offers a different approach, except that this is called “national,” and (4) there is absolutely nothing in the CC agenda that addresses social or educational inequities such as disproportionate discipline policies, course access, and teacher assignment.

So with due trepidation, I now wade into the few but needed challenges being offered about how CC encourages “close reading” of texts.

First, let me highlight that my primary field of teaching writing offers a powerful and disturbing parallel model of how the accountability/standards/testing movement supplanted and destroyed evidence-based pedagogy.

I have detailed that the rise of best practice in the teaching of writing in the 1970s and 1980s was squelched by the accountability era begun in the 1980s; see Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

As well, Applebee and Langer offer a chilling refrain of best practice in writing wilting under the weight of standards and testing in their Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

Reading instruction and reading experiences for children, we must acknowledge, will suffer the same negative consequences under CC and the related high-stakes tests because there are no provisions for implementing CC that change how standards and tests are implemented (often each round of standards and tests are simply infused into the current practices) and, in reality, CC approaches to reading are new names for traditional (and flawed) reading practices.

Next, I strongly recommend the following pieces that essentially confront the central problem with CC’s focus on close reading (and as I’ll expand on below, how close reading continues the traditional view of text-based analysis grounded in New Criticism—and thus excluding critical literacy and the powerful contributions of marginalized writers and critics [1]):

Reading Without Understanding — Common Core Versus Abraham Lincoln, Alan Singer

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core: A critical reading of “close reading,” Daniel E. Ferguson

I want here, then, to add just a few more thoughts on why committing to CC and close reading fails against the gains we have made in understanding the complexity of responding to texts in the context of the words on the page, the intent and biography of the writer, the biography of the reader, and the multiple historical contexts that intersect when anyone reads any text.

Let me start with an example.

I began my poetry unit always with “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

My instructional goals with starting here are many, but in part, this poem was ideal to make a key point about how we respond to text. I would read the poem aloud and then ask students to close their eyes and envision a wheelbarrow. Then I would ask several to describe what they saw.

The exercise highlighted that many students pictured wheelbarrows in various positions. I always shared with students that I always see any wheelbarrow turned up on its front edge, leaning against a tree because my father was adamant that a wheelbarrow must not sit with the body of the wheelbarrow turned so that it can gather water, which leads to rust forming.

This activity allowed us to discuss what readers can say about the text of a piece, distinguish that from their personal responses (the text says nothing of how the wheelbarrow is sitting, but dictates that it is red, for example), and tease out how writer intent, text, and reader affect create the possibility of dozens of credible, although different, interpretations.

From there we began to confront what counts as “right,” as well as who decides what is “right” as an interpretation.

I made certain my students understood how to conduct a New Criticism analysis and stressed that school, teachers, and many testing situations (notably Advanced Placement) honor only such approaches to text.

Next, however, we challenged that dynamic and began exploring how each student’s empowerment and autonomy rested on having a broad set of lens through which to engage with text, through which to unmask power dynamics embedded in authoritative interpretations of text. [2]

This, of course, is the province of critical literacy.

Ironically, if we use a critical reading of CC and calls for close reading, we discover that “close reading” (and the move by David Coleman from writing CC to leading College Board, where AP and SAT tests are spawned) is simply a repackaging of text-only approaches to text embraced by New Criticism (see the history of New Criticism in the ELA classroom in “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in English Journal (English Journal, 101(3), 52-57).

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

CC and close reading—if we wade into debates about the quality of the standards—are nothing new, in fact. Advocates of CC are ironically proving why instead of close reading we need critical reading.

Context matters.

[1] See, for example, Literature: The Reader’s Role, Louise M. Rosenblatt (May, 1960), The English Journal, 49(5), 304-310, 315-316.

[2] See how I use a children’s book, Click, Clack, Moo, to introduce students to Marxist and Feminist critical lenses for texts as a contract to text-based analyses: “Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the One Percent Always Wins.

NAEP? Nope: Why (Almost) Everyone Will Misread (Again) Data on Gaps

Let the data orgy begin!

NAEP data have been released and I anticipate almost as much time and money will be wasted on the data as has been wasted on administering the tests, scoring the tests, and creating the handy web link to all that data—notably the predictable link to gaps. [For the record, most of these data charts can be prepared without any child ever taking tests; just use the socioeconomic data on each child and extrapolate.]

Take a moment and scroll through the gray space between myriad groups in both math and reading.

There, enjoy it?

While you’re at it, look at the historical gaps between males and females in the SAT.

Males on average outscore females in reading and math (though females outscore males in writing, the one section of the SAT that doesn’t count for anything anywhere, hmmmm).

The problem, of course, is that standardized test data are simply metrics for social conditions that we pretend are measures of learning and teaching.

It is a particularly nasty game, but it seems few are going to stop playing any time soon. “Achievement gap”* has now ascended to the point of being classified as a subset of Tourette syndrome among politicians and education reformers.

The problems with persisting to lament achievement gaps and then address those gaps with new standards and more testing are that the solutions both primarily measure those gaps and contribute to them:

  • Standardized testing remains biased by class, race, and gender.
  • Standardized test scores remain mostly a reflection of any child’s home (from about 60% to as much as 86%).
  • School and classes students take are more often than not a reflection of the community and homes children are born into; thus, school/learning quality is determined by a child’s socioeconomic status, but those schools do not change that status.
  • If affluent children and impoverished children are provided equal learning opportunities (which they are not), the gap cannot close (go back and look at the handy NAEP charts on gaps, by the way).

The short point is something different has to be done in both the lives and schools of children in poverty (as well as racial and language subgroups overrepresented in poverty) if those data-point gaps are ever going to be reduced.

David Berliner (2013) is illustrative of what those differences should entail, using PISA data often instrumental in ranking educational quality of countries:

Let me look at inequality and schooling internationally: Do countries with greater income inequality generally do worse on achievement tests than countries where income inequality and poverty is lower? The answer is yes (Condron, 2011). Larger income disparities within a nation are associated with lower scores on international tests of achievement. For example, on the 2006 mathematics tests of the Program on International Student Achievement, with a mean score near 500, Finland scored above all other nations (548), and substantially beat the United States of America (474). But Finland is a country with low inequality and a very low childhood poverty rate. But suppose that Finland had the same rate of childhood poverty as the United States of America, and the United States of America had the same rate of childhood poverty as Finland. What might the scores of these two nations be like then? If one statistically adjusted each nation’s scores using the poverty rate of the other, then Finland’s score is predicted to be 487, a long way from the top position it had attained. The score for the United States of America would have been 509, quite a bit better than it actually did. Clearly, inequality within a nation matters. If large numbers of youth in a nation are poor, then achievement test scores are likely to be lower. If there were a reduction in the poverty rate of a nations’ youth, achievement scores are likely to go up….

To those who say that poverty will always exist, it is important to remember that many Northern European countries such as Norway and Finland have virtually wiped out childhood poverty. (pp. 205, 208)

Thus, if we are bound and determined to persist in our fetish for test scores and remain committed to raising test scores (instead of actually alleviating inequity or providing all children with wonderful and rich school days that would end in learning and happiness), guess what?

We need to do something different than what we have been doing for thirty-plus years!

First, end the standards-testing rat race.

Second, end childhood poverty.

Reference

David C. Berliner (2013) Inequality, Poverty, and the Socialization of America’s Youth for the Responsibilities of Citizenship, Theory Into Practice, 52:3, 203-209, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2013.804314

* Please see my series on “achievement gaps”:

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 1

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 2

Is Learning to Read Natural?

I need to offer as few clarifications since my recent post on how the teaching of reading has been historically corrupted by the influence of reading programs. The motivation of the clarification comes from a comment posted by KenS.*

First, my literacy teaching for the past thirty years does rest on a controversial concept—that grammatical knowledge is essentially biological (see Pinker and Chomsky). This I believe is important as it helps keep literacy instruction from being reduced to seeing language as something acquired.

Next, and to KenS’s questions, speaking and listening are inherent to being human, but reading and writing are artificial, thus acquiring reading and writing are not natural.

However, my point in the earlier post, which certainly wasn’t clear or fully explored, is that Dewey’s claim about not needing to teach reading is grounded in that when children have privileged environments, notably ones that are language and text rich, the acquisition of reading can appear to be natural.

Our goals, then, should be to insure all children have privileged homes that are conducive to language acquisition and that schools provide parallel environments that foster and reinforce  literacy acquisition.

One additional caveat is all of the above is addressing decoding and comprehension (“reading” is a complex term). But I never see decoding and comprehension as going far enough in formal education.

Direct instruction and careful fostering of critical literacy must be provided to all students, and the acquisition of critical literacy, I believe, is certainly not acquired naturally since it requires that we confront and challenge all of the conditions that constitute “natural” for each person.

I hope this is more clear and addresses the great comment from KenS.

* See the comment from Kens at my original post and below:

First, Dr. Thomas, thanks, as always, for making me aware of historical perspectives I was not previously aware of. Your writing always provides much food for thought.

I am not certain of your point with this post, however, and because understanding how young people learn to read (or don’t) has become so important to me, I hope you will clarify for me.

Mea culpa: Despite the fact that I am in my 17th year of teaching middle school English, I have come to see myself as a teacher of reading only gradually. Earlier in my career I saw it as my job to teach literature and academic writing. It took me far longer than it should have, but I finally began to wonder why students reached middle school with such widely varying aptitudes for understanding what they read.

My question pertains to your statement that your “perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s” belief that “reading just happened.” How close, then is your perspective to Dewey’s position?

Dewey’s stance contradicts what I’ve come to believe – although there seems to be much disagreement about reading instruction, even among experts, so I am keeping an open mind.

OK, I’ll try to be brief: Pinker, in The Language Instinct, convinced my that young children are wired to learn oral language without formal instruction. Hart and Risley, in Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, convinced me that the extensive differences in the quantity and quality of verbal experiences among children had an enormous impact on children’s readiness to learn once they started school. Lakoff and Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By, led me to believe that the advantages affluent children had in verbal practice led not only to a larger vocabulary, but a conceptual system far more prepared to make sense of the abstract content they encountered in school.

But here is where I disagree with Dewey; here is where I think he just didn’t understand that a reason he didn’t remember being taught to read is that his young mind didn’t have the conceptual framework yet to be metacognitive about what he was undergoing in his childhood.

Dr. Diane McGuinness, in several books, has argued that children don’t naturally learn to read any more than they naturally learn to work on car engines. Yes, some people have more aptitude for learning how car engines work, just as some people learn to read faster. But, still, having some guidance from someone more experienced seems a “natural” part of our development as humans.

McGuinness points out that writing systems are a human invention and the English alphabetic system is particularly complicated. To fully understand it, children must be taught to decode written words and encode into writing the sounds we produce as words. She also points out that the brain is an incredible pattern-spotting machine, and children will learn, even when teaching methods are not particularly efficient.

Now, to be clear, it seems to me there are essentially two stages (that must overlap) to learning to read – learning to decode and encode the code that is our alphabet, and learning to read for meaning. Perhaps I misunderstood your position, and you were referring to learning to read for meaning. To some extent, I think that can occur more “naturally,” as our brains are also meaning-seeking.

Finally, all this has led me to believe most definitely that discrepencies in wealth and power and priviledge are responsible for the much of the discrepencies we see in children’s academic achievment. In that regard, I agree with you 100%.

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

Well into my 30s and during my doctoral program, I was finally afforded the opportunity to read carefully the work of John Dewey. This late scholarship on my part is an indictment of teacher certification, but it is also a window into the historical and current misinformation about the state of reading and the teaching of reading in U.S. schools.

Dewey, the Father of Progressive Education, I discovered, believed that we do not need to teach reading; Dewey noted that reading just happened, basing this claim on his own inability to recall having been taught to read.

The first time I came across this—considering I was then and remain primarily a teacher of English—I was puzzled that Dewey could be so wrong about reading and so compelling* about education in general.

With time, however, I realized that my initial rejection of Dewey’s belief about reading sprang from my perspective as a teacher: Teachers are predisposed to seeing themselves as change agents, as causational in the learning of others.

As an avid reader and writer, if I am honest, my perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s. It is likely that Dewey and I experienced similar conditions of privilege that allowed something like a natural learning of reading, and literacy in general.

And it is here that we must confront a foundational question: Why have we declared a perpetual reading crisis in the U.S. throughout the last century?**

Lou LaBrant: A Progressive Voice

Lou LaBrant began teaching in 1906—in a one-room school, nonetheless. LaBrant’s career spanned most of the 20th century, ending in 1971.

Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, LaBrant built a substantial publishing record that focused on a few powerful commitments: (1) Endorsing progressive education, (2) calling for free reading, and (3) highlighting the importance of libraries and the role of librarians as teachers (LaBrant, 1940).

Progressive education and Dewey became and often remain targets of traditional claims that U.S. public education is a failure. But, as Alfie Kohn has detailed:

Despite the fact that all schools can be located on a continuum stretching between the poles of totally progressive and totally traditional — or, actually, on a series of continuums reflecting the various components of those models — it’s usually possible to visit a school and come away with a pretty clear sense of whether it can be classified as predominantly progressive. It’s also possible to reach a conclusion about how many schools — or even individual classrooms — in America merit that label: damned few. The higher the grade level, the rarer such teaching tends to be, and it’s not even all that prevalent at the lower grades. (Also, while it’s probably true that most progressive schools are independent, most independent schools are not progressive.)

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

LaBrant’s career and her scholarship, then, represent both an accurate case for progressive approaches to teaching reading and a record of how U.S public schools have failed the promise those practices offered.

More so than Dewey, LaBrant’s scholarship and practice represent a practical progressive pedagogy that rises above “natural” and includes “critical”:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

Dewey’s claim of “natural” learning has led critics to demonizing the latter, while LaBrant’s practices are grounded in the former. In reality, again as Kohn shows, neither the misapplication of a laissez-faire progressivism nor holistic, child-centered progressivism has ever characterized the learning experiences of most U.S. students.

And thus, LaBrant’s arguments throughout the first half of the twentieth century remain relevant.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In fact, many years before this observation, LaBrant (1936) confronted the failure of implementing progressive philosophy in the real-world classroom:

An Experience Curriculum in English [A Report of a Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. W. Wilbur Hatfield, Chairman. D. Appleton- Century Company, 1935], published only a the year ago, is already influencing the course of study in many schools. There is always danger in popular revision that the change may be confined to stated objectives and superficial devices, and that basic understandings may not be involved at all. A teacher eager to join the ranks of progressives recently asked the question: “How can I put the teaching of The Lady of the Lake on an experience basis in my ninth grade class?” The question is but little less absurd than the procedures of many curriculum revisers who re-arrange old materials, add a little in- formality to class discussions and present the result as a mark of progress. We must consequently beware lest many so-called “experience curriculums” be set up without recognition of opportunity for normal, strong and complex experiences, within which language development in reading, writing, talking and listening is an integral factor. (p. 295)

Despite LaBrant’s optimism above about the impact of NCTE’s report, the history of reading programs in the U.S. remains a disappointing trail of costume parties. In fact, the history of reading instruction as little more than a masquerade was tackled by LaBrant (1936) just five years before:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. At almost any meeting of teachers of English one may find, somewhere near the main entrance, a room full of exhibition work. This will include models of the castle from Ivanhoe, miniatures of the lake with Ellen’s isle, weaving ma-chines like those at Raveloe, and soap reproductions of Camelot. Recently a teacher attempted to protest against such an exhibition. The reply was that such materials always drew attention from teachers, more attention than lectures probably, and that pupils also found them interesting. …

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. Good work in handcraft would best be accomplished by a teacher trained in that field. The sand table, the soap for carving, the tiny mirrors for lakes, and the rest of the paraphernalia belong, certainly, outside the literature class. (pp. 245, 246)

The misapplication of the project method as arts and crafts (instead of reading) is a close cousin to what passes for reading instruction today: Test-prep for reading tests (instead of reading).

Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

If LaBrant were alive today, I suspect she would express the same wrath for Common Core and the high-stakes testing that are the source of the materials bonanza now sweeping across the U.S.: This is once again allowing reading programs to masquerade as reading instruction—except these costume parties are incredibly costly in terms of time and public funding and detrimental to the exact students who need genuine progressive learning environments the most.

Why, then, are we failing reading once again?

There is no market incentive for doing what is right in terms of reading.

New standards and new tests feed our consumer culture, but genuine reading reform would not.

In short, the sort of reading practices we have known to be effective since LaBrant’s career (and echoed by leading literacy experts decade after decade) simply don’t sell:

  • Alleviate poverty and inequity so that all children live in homes that foster early reading development.
  • Choice reading, not prescriptive reading programs, is essential to reading development.
  • Access to books, such as libraries as well as books in the home, is also central to reading growth.

Thus, if genuine social and school reform focused on the above, instead of new standards, new tests, and new materials, consider the consequences:

If all children entered schools as literate as most affluent children, the reading program industry would be destroyed.

Just as the market economy of the U.S. depends on poverty to thrive (and thus market forces will never overcome poverty), the reading program industry depends on struggling readers and thus will never seek ways to foster reading among all children.

The choice before us is to continue the masquerade that is Common Core—one that lines the pockets of curriculum consultants, textbook and testing companies, and government bureaucrats—or to make a truly progressive commitment to both the lives and schools of all children, lives and schools that allow learning that seems natural.

References

LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L.L. (1936). The library and “An experience curriculum in English.” The Elementary English Review, 13(8), pp. 295-297, 305.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Thomas, P. (2001). Lou LaBrant—A woman’s life, a teacher’s life. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

* For the record, I am not a progressive, and I remain about equally disappointed in traditionalists and progressives in terms of educational practices. When I must acknowledge a label, I am most comfortable with “critical.”

** Without a historical perspective of education, the public may be unaware that at any moment throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the public and professional claim about reading always includes: (a) children today aren’t reading as much as they used to, (b) our literacy rate is in crisis, and (c) we must make sure that all children can read [insert grade level here; in 2013, 3rd grade is the emergency year].

First, Do No Harm: That Includes the Media

Public education in the U.S. suffers under a powerful intersection of politics, the media, and the public. As I have too often documented, misinformation tends to be reinforced among all three of these forces.

The role of media, as Alfie Kohn has examined, is central to perpetuating not only misleading beliefs about school quality and education reform but also bad policy.

For example, in South Carolina, The Greenville News has posted an editorial position on reading legislation that misreads what is the best path forward for addressing literacy in this high-poverty and deeply segregated state, notably:

The core part of the legislation makes common sense and is widely supported. It would make it mandatory to retain any third-grader who is not proficient in reading by the end of the school year. It is an idea that has been implemented in Florida to promising results, and it simply makes sense. Promoting a child to fourth-grade if he or she lacks the needed reading skills dooms that child to failure. Although holding back a student can have negative effects on him or her, that student certainly will do better if educators ensure he or she first knows how to read before advancing past third grade.

While we may need some proof that retention of third graders based on high-stakes test scores is in fact “common sense,” it seems true that retention is “widely supported.” The problem with those justifications is that four decades of research strongly rejects retention and close analysis of Florida’s Just Read, Florida, policies discredits claims of its “promising results” (see a full analysis with extensive evidence of the research base on both here).

A point of flawed logic also drives this editorial position: Retention and promotion are not the only options available, and are thus a false dichotomy that likely sits beneath the reality that retention is “widely supported” by the public and then political leaders (see how narrow choices create a false narrative that an issue is supported in the fourth paragraph from the end here).

Further, embedded in this misunderstanding of the research base on retention are careless claims about Florida’s education reform success as well as the current understanding of reading/ literacy instruction and development.

Florida, in fact, is a lesson in what not to do in terms of education policy (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Reading/ literacy instruction has been eroded by the accountability era based on standards and high-stakes testing. Literacy is misrepresented by multiple-choice testing, and teaching to those tests greatly warps good literacy instruction.

Test-reading is almost nothing like reading in the real world.

Instead of misguided reading policies reinforced by uninformed media endorsements, a few important and grounding commitments should be guiding reading policy:

  • First, do no harm. Allowing reading policy to be linked to harmful retention policies is inexcusable.
  • Relieve literacy policy from the accountability machine. Authentic, rich, and holistic literacy is eroded by focusing on isolated and skills-based instruction and testing.
  • Recognize that literacy is deeply linked to social class. Unless some powerful efforts are made to address poverty and inequity, students from poverty will remain mislabeled as “bad students” in school and then mis-served in those schools by being funneled into skill-and-drill classes serving the mandates to raise test scores.
  • Set aside the crisis discourse and policies related to literacy. Treating third grade like an Emergency Room ensures that students in most need of patient and rich learning environments will continue to be offered emergency care, and thus once again will be cheated.
  • Embrace low-cost and evidence-based practices that will guarantee literacy growth by increasing student access to books in their lives and their schools: “Perhaps the most serious problem with current literacy campaigns is that they ignore, and even divert attention from, the real problem: Lack of access to books for children of poverty,” explains Stephen Krashen.

Literacy growth is a natural part of being human. Children in middle-class and affluent homes (and thus likely to be enrolled in schools and classes that reinforce rich and authentic literacy) enjoy the sort of experiences with literacy all children deserve.

Retaining third graders based on high-stakes testing will further perpetuate inequity and erode opportunities for children living in poverty to experience rich and authentic learning environments with texts that would result in the type of literacy growth associated with privileged children.

A final problem with the media’s endorsement of “common sense” and “widely supported” education policy is the recurring call for compromise (see Cindy Scoppe at The State), also expressed in The Greenville News editorial:

The important work this fall and heading into the next legislative session is for education leaders and lawmakers to get on the same page about how such an effort would be implemented. There is plenty of room for common ground on this issue….

When policy is evidence-based (as it should be), a compromise between positions that are not evidence based and positions that are evidence based results in flawed policy. In other words, compromise between wrong and right can only result in wrong.

Yes, I recognize that politics is the realm of compromise, but I also believe therein lies the great failure of politics for setting education policy.

In the end, then, much could be solved if we kept our focus on first, do no harm instead of seeking always compromise as the basis for decisions on education policy.

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina

“Nearly 3,000 of South Carolina’s third-graders who struggle with reading could be held back if the state adopts a plan that would require students to read at or near grade level,” Jamie Self reports in The State (“Education leaders: Florida holds key to SC literacy fix,” March 31, 2013), adding later,

Under Peeler’s bill, 2,886 SC third-graders scored low enough on a 2012 reading test to be held back a year — more than four times the 584 third-graders held back in 2012. The number reflects only the lowest-scoring readers, about 27 percent of the more than 10,500 third-graders who scored as not reading on grade level….

SC schools chief Mick Zais supports the plan to hold back struggling third-graders and would like to see a similar track for seventh graders, his spokesman Jay Ragley said.

SC Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, has introduced the bill modeled on Just Read, Florida, part of a grade-retention policy widely promoted by Jeb Bush as one aspect of the larger so-called “Florida Miracle.”

SC political leadership must not follow Florida’s lead in reading policy or grade retention policy for several reasons, including the following: the “Florida Miracle” has been thoroughly discredited, grade retention has no support in the research that shows retention has no positive outcomes but many negative consequences for children and tax payers, and initiatives such as Just Read, Florida ignore and replace credible literacy policy desperately needed in high-poverty states such as SC.

First, SC political leadership and the public must acknowledge what low reading test scores represent and the negative consequences of basing policy on test data:

  • All standardized test scores, including reading scores, are overwhelmingly a reflection of home, community, and school inequities more so than direct and clear evidence of holistic reading ability by children. Low reading scores by third graders in SC are signals of a high-poverty state, first and foremost.
  • Reading test scores are often poor evidence of real-world and holistic reading ability. Standardized tests of reading are typically skills-based and/or complicated by other student skills imbedded in the test format (for example, having students write on a reading test blurs the evidence on reading and writing proficiencies).
  • High-stakes test-based decisions for grade retention, instructional programs, and instructional practices—especially in literacy—have a clear negative impact on the quality of instruction as well as the quality of learning opportunities children who need education the most are likely to receive:

In too many places, however, graduation and promotion tests are putting many students at sharply increased risk of suffering the serious, well-documented harm associated with grade retention and denial of high school diplomas. Those at greatest risk include the very populations—students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners, and low-income students—whom standards-based reform could potentially help the most. (Heubert, 2002/2003)

Second, SC political leadership and the public must acknowledge that the “Florida Miracle”—like the “Texas Miracle,” the “Harlem Miracle,” and the “Chicago Miracle”—has been thoroughly discredited as incomplete data, misrepresented accomplishments, or outright failures.

A brief review of credible examinations of the “Florida formula” include strong cautions about both the claims of success and the use of Florida as a model of reform.

Matthew Di Carlo acknowledges mixed results, but cautions using the formula to drive policy:

That said, the available evidence on these policies, at least those for which some solid evidence exists, might be summarized as mixed but leaning toward modestly positive, with important (albeit common) caveats. A few of the reforms may have generated moderate but meaningful increases in test-based performance (with all the limitations that this implies) among the students and schools they affected. In a couple of other cases, there seems to have been little discernible impact on testing outcomes (and/or there is not yet sufficient basis to draw even highly tentative conclusions). It’s a good bet – or at least wishful thinking – that most of the evidence is still to come.

In the meantime, regardless of one’s opinion on whether the “Florida formula” is a success and/or should be exported to other states, the assertion that the reforms are responsible for the state’s increases in NAEP scores and FCAT proficiency rates during the late 1990s and 2000s not only violates basic principles of policy analysis, but it is also, at best, implausible. The reforms’ estimated effects, if any, tend to be quite small, and most of them are, by design, targeted at subgroups (e.g., the “lowest-performing” students and schools). Thus, even large impacts are no guarantee to show up at the aggregate statewide level (see the papers and reviews in the first footnote for more discussion)….

Whether we like it or not, real improvements at aggregate levels are almost always slow and incremental. There are no “miracles,” in Florida or anywhere else. The sooner we realize that, and start choosing and judging policies based on attainable expectations that accept the reality of the long haul, the better.

Julian Vasquez Heilig identifies the error of focusing on apparent increases in 3rd to 4th grade reading scores and associating them with policy:

Cloaking Inequity examined the purported test score miracle earlier here. In 4th grade, Florida improved over the last decade and was position in the top ten nationally, but as you move up the grade levels, the longer student stay in Florida schools, the worse their performance relative to the nation. I also discussed the official Florida scholarship evaluation in Florida that showed their scholarship (aka neovoucher) program had not increased the achievement of program participants.

Third, all evidence on grade retention reveals only negative consequences for children (academic and emotional) and tax payers, the public. [1]

Alfie Kohn notes that accountability “get tough” attitudes are masking the need for policy to be built on evidence:

The same get-tough sensibility that has loosed an avalanche of testing has led to a self-congratulatory war on “social promotion” that consists of forcing students to repeat a grade. The preponderance of evidence indicates that this is just about the worst course of action to take with struggling children in terms of both its academic and social-psychological effects. And the evidence uniformly demonstrates that retention increases the chance that a student will leave school; in fact, it’s an even stronger predictor of dropping out than is socioeconomic status.

Some of the well-documented effects of grade retention include the following:

Retained students are more likely to be male, younger than classmates, from a lower socio-economic class, black or Hispanic, a behavior problem and immature (Karweit, 1991).

Research shows a large correlation between dropouts and retention….

Controlled studies do not support the benefits claimed for extra-year programs (i.e., transitional first, pre-kindergarten) and negative side effects occur just as they do for retention in later grades….

Empirical research shows retention does not improve the achievement of children as measured by tests of basic skills. No significant positive long-term effect is evident. Studies indicate retention is either ineffective or harmful, with more negative than positive effects….

Retention imposes an economic burden of financing an extra year of schooling….

Children attach stigma, stress, and shame to retention.

Kevin Welner states directly and clearly that no policy decisions should include grade retention, specifically citing Florida’s policies:

Let’s use grade retention to illustrate. States across the U.S. are adopting mandates requiring that  third graders with low reading scores repeat the grade. The ‘leave the student back’ policy is being heavily marketed by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization created by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. But retaining students is not a new idea. It’s an experiment that’s been tried on and off for generations, and it’s been studied for almost that long.

The overarching message from research in this area is that retaining a low-scoring third grader will not help her do better than a similar classmate with similar scores who is moved along to fourth grade, but she will be more likely to eventually drop out.

Viewed from a taxpayer perspective, retaining a student will likely have one of two outcomes:

1. She may drop out, meaning she will pay about $60,000 less in taxes over her lifetime, be more likely to commit crimes, and be more likely to depend on government assistance; or

2. She may complete high school, at a cost of an extra year of school – about $10,000. If retention had a substantial payoff, paying for an extra year of school would be worthwhile (although it nationally adds up to billions of dollars each year). But there’s no benefit. With grade retention, we are paying more and getting a worse outcome.

That’s the evidence. It’s what we have learned (or should have learned) from decades of  experience. Grade retention can be expected to have the same destructive results in 2012 as it did when it was tried ten or twenty or forty years ago – or any of the years in between. Yet our lawmakers do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting different results.

Allensworth (2005) found that retention based on test scores at the elementary level contributed to higher drop-out rates; this study is particularly important to evaluating the long-term impact of the Florida formula as well as any state considering implementing similar policies that focus on short-term test scores while ignoring long-term consequences.

Grade retention fails students retained, fails taxpayers, and as Gottfried (2013) has shown, fails the non-retained classmates of students retained:

This research has brought to the foreground a new dimension of the analysis relating to grade retention, as well as peer effects. In essence, by demonstrating a pervasive negative effect of retained classmates, as derived from multiple quasi-experimental methods on a panel data set of urban schoolchildren, this study corroborates the predominant conclusions of prior research on retention. Namely, this practice of grade retention is associated with negative outcomes (Allen et al. 2009; Holmes 1989; McCoy and Reynolds 1999; Meisels and Liaw 1993; Reynolds 1992; Roderick and Nagaoka 2005). The unique contribution of this study is that the negative outcomes of this schooling practice are not restricted to the retained students themselves; rather, this study has found that retention can affect the academic outcomes for other members of the classroom. Moreover, this study has also facilitated an opportunity for urban educational experiences to be further delineated and for policy implications of this practice to be more thoroughly discussed.

Finally, SC political leadership needs to address in authentic and effective ways the very real literacy challenges faced by our high-poverty students. Modeling SC educational policy on Florida, however, would achieve only what Kohn has identified as policy insuring more non-readers.

Credible reading policy in SC would include the following:

  • Create and implement social policy that addresses poverty and job creation/stability in the historically high-poverty areas of the state. Children living in high-poverty homes and communities are “doubly disadvantaged” in ways that cannot be overcome by schools alone and that are too often reflected in and perpetuated by community-based schools and failed educational policies such as Florida’s Just Read, Florida.
  • Reading and literacy achievement should be evaluated through holistic, classroom-based mechanisms, not high-stakes testing. Increasing high-stakes test scores in reading may have the unintended consequence of producing both misleading data and further eroding the literacy proficiency of high-poverty, minority, special needs, and ELL students. Test-based evaluations of students, teachers, schools, and policy tend to create conditions that ask less of everyone, not more.
  • Reading proficiency is of little value if students are non-readers due to punitive and skills-based school policy. Reading is a holistic and unpredictable human behavior that must be fostered over many years and through strategies that appear “too simple”—increase children’s access to books in their homes, increase children’s access to books in school, provide students extended opportunities to read by choice during the school day, address adult and community literacy
  • Reading proficiency and creating life-long, eager readers will never be achieved by reading policies or programs, particularly pre-packaged commercial programs. Teachers and parents can and should foster reading and all literacy, but ultimately children cannot be bribed, forced, or punished into being readers.

As Welner concludes in his consideration of education reform:

To be clear, “social promotion” – the movement of students from grade to grade with no meaningful intervention for those who fall behind – is also not supported by research evidence. Instead, as proven approaches to address the problem of early reading gaps, research supports high-quality early-childhood education, intensive early reading interventions, and smaller class sizes in early grades for at-risk students. These are all less costly and more effective than grade retention.

Evidence supports grade promotion combined with these sorts of interventions, and it clearly cautions against a systemic use of grade retention, even retention combined with additional academic support.

A reckless disregard of evidence is harmful. It leads to the waste of precious resources: our tax dollars and our children themselves. And grade retention is only one example of the larger problem.

SOURCES

“Florida Miracle” 

Review of Closing the Racial Achievement Gap, Madhabi Chatterji

Water into Wine?, Julian Vasquez Heilig

Lurking in the Bushes, Julian Vasquez Heilig

Parsing the Florida “Miracle,” Diane Ravitch

The Test-Based Evidence on the “Florida Formula,” Matthew Di Carlo

Editorial: Florida needs no advice from Jeb Bush on education policy, Jac Versteeg

Review of Getting Farther Ahead by Staying Behind, Derek C. Briggs

How Jeb Bush’s school reforms really played out in Florida, interview with Sherman Dorn

Grade Retention: U.S.

Third Grade Reading Policies, Rose (2012)

Education in Two Worlds: Follow Up to “50 Myths & Lies,” Gene V. Glass

A second myth we see as dangerous has that quality because of what it reveals about too many of America’s politicians and school leaders: it reveals both their ignorance and their cruelty! This is the myth that leaving a child back in grade who is not doing well academically is good for the child. It provides the child with “the gift of time” to catch up. We believe that only ignorant and cruel people would support such a policy, although it is law in about a dozen states, including Arizona and Florida. First of all, a large and quite consistent set of research studies, many of excellent quality, point out that for the vast majority of the children retention in grade has either no benefit, or is detrimental. Only rarely does retention benefit the child who was left back. So the research overwhelming suggests that those who recommend retention are likely to be ignorant. Second, an important piece of the rationale for retention policies is that if you cannot read well by third grade you are more likely to be a school failure. But reading expert Stephen Krashen disputes this, citing research on 12 young students with serious reading problems, dyslexics all. Eleven of the twelve did not learn to read well until they were between 10 and 12 years of age, and one did not learn to read until he was in 12th grade. Among these slow learners, all of whom would have been left back in Florida and Arizona, were nine who published creative scholarly works, and one who became a Nobel laureate. So not doing well by third grade does not determine one’s destiny. Third, the research informs us that retention policies are disproportionately directed at those who are poor, male, English language learners, and children of color. Middle class white children are rarely left back. Fourth, a retention decision changes family dynamics. Parents and siblings change in their treatment of, and aspirations for, the child identified by the school as having “flunked.” Of course, the schools do not say a child is dumb. Instead they offer the children and the families “the gift of time” to catch up. But the world interprets that gift more cruelly. Fifth, being left back is associated with much higher rates of dropping out before completion of high school. Thus, the social costs of this policy go way up since these children are more likely to need assistance in living because of poor wage earning capacity, and there is also the greater likelihood of a higher incarceration rate for people that do not finish school and cannot find decent work. Sixth, when surveyed, children left back say it feels as bad as losing a parent or going blind. It is an overwhelmingly negative event in the lives of the vast majority of the retained children, so leaving them back is cruel as well as a reflection of the ignorance of those who promote these policies. Seventh, and finally, the same costs expended for an extra year of education for the child who is held back, say eight thousand dollars, could more profitably be spent on a more beneficial treatment than repetition of a grade. A certified reading specialist, working twice a week as a tutor throughout the school year and for some part of the summer, would have greater success in improving a child’s academic performance. There is no more powerful treatment than tutoring, and in this case it is cheaper and more humane than is flunking a child. For the seven reasons given, we can think of no education policy that reflects worse on America’s politicians and educators than the policy of retaining students in grade.

Hold Back to Move Forward? Early Grade Retention and Student Misbehavior, Umut Özek

Test-based accountability has become the new norm in public education over the last decade. In many states and school districts nation-wide, student performance in standardized tests plays an important role in high-stakes decisions such as grade retention. This study examines the effects of grade retention on student misbehavior in Florida, which requires students with reading skills below grade level to be retained in the 3rd grade. The regression discontinuity estimates suggest that grade retention increases the likelihood of disciplinary incidents and suspensions in the years that follow. The findings also suggest that these adverse effects are concentrated among economically disadvantaged students

Retaining Students in Grade A Literature Review of the Effects of Retention on Students’ Academic and Nonacademic Outcomes, Nailing Xia, Sheila Nataraj Kirby (2009)

Our review of these 91 studies indicates that grade retention is associated with gender, race, SES, age for grade, student mobility, family and parental characteristics, prior academic achievement, prior behavioral and socioemotional development, and student health. Converging evidence suggests that grade retention alone is not an effective intervention strategy for improving academic and longer-term life outcomes. In general, retention does not appear to benefit students academically. Although some studies have found academic improvement in the immediate years after retention, these gains are usually short-lived and tend to fade over time. Past research has consistently shown that retained students are at significantly increased risk of dropping out of school. Although only a few studies have examined the effects of retention on postsecondary outcomes, the available evidence suggests negative effects on enrollment in postsecondary education and on employment outcomes in adulthood. Overall, the literature indicates mixed findings on attitudinal, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomes among the retained students….Our review found fruitful avenues of research, most notably the impact of supportive interventions (such as early identification of at-risk students, academic instructional services provided in and out of school, and different types of intervention strategies) on proximal and future student outcomes.

The Spillover Effects of Grade-Retained Classmates: Evidence from Urban Elementary Schools, Michael A. Gottfired, American Journal of Education 119 (May 2013)

Retention, Social Promotion, and Academic Redshirting: What Do We Know and Need to Know?, Nancy Frey, Remedial and Special Education, volume 26, number 6, November/December 2005, pages 332-346

The evidence gathered in the last 30 years on the practice of retention suggests that it is academically ineffective and is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health. The seeds of failure may be sown early for students who are retained, as they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Furthermore, the trajectory of adverse outcomes appears to continue into young adulthood, when wages and postsecondary educational opportunities are depressed.

Dropout Rates after High-Stakes Testing in Elementary School: A Study of the Contradictory Effects of Chicago’s Efforts to End Social Promotion, Elaine M. Allensworth, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 341-364

Alternative to Grade Retention, Jimerson, Pletcher, and Kerr (2005)

Given the accumulating evidence that grade retention is an ineffective and possibly harmful intervention, it is imperative that school administrators advocate for “promotion plus” policies that depend on effective, evidence-based interventions. The issue for secondary school educators is twofold. Not only must educators determine whether retention is appropriate for a given student, they also need to address the negative academic, social, and emotional consequences for students who were retained in earlier grades. Very often the student’s original difficulties persist, or more likely worsen, as their school career progresses.

Winning the Battle and Losing the War, Jimerson, Anderson, and Whipple (Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 39(4), 2002)

Considering the results of this review of research examining the association between grade retention and high school dropout and other reviews of research addressing the efficacy of grade retention (Holmes, 1989; Jimerson, 2001a, 2001b; Smith & Shepard, 1987, 1988), we must move beyond the use of grade retention as an intervention strategy and attempt to implement those strategies research has demonstrated to be effective (Jimerson, 2001a). Educational professionals, researchers, parents, and policymakers would be remiss to overlook the implications of research that demonstrate the association between grade retention and school dropout. Furthermore, a new imperative has emerged, where the onus is on programs training future educational professionals to disseminate the results of the recent research presented in this review. It is crucial that we transcend limited solutions and begin to consider student developmental and achievement trajectories in order to reinforce and strengthen pathways that promote social and cognitive competence and lead to academic success.

Does Retention (Repeating a Grade) Help Struggling Learners?

Some stakeholders in Florida believe that the “hard line in the sand” created by mandatory, test-based retention created a motivational difference in teachers and parents…, since it is thought that many of the same learning supports were being provided to struggling students prior to the policy. This may be the case for test score gains close to the retention year, but given the well-known longer-term negative effect of retention on drop-out rates (e.g., Allensworth, 2005) as well as the assured delayed entry into the workforce, Florida’s evidence falls far short of even suggesting that retention is the only or best way to motivate a real positive difference for struggling students, nor has it contradicted the overwhelming evidence against retention prior and since.

What Doesn’t Work, Smith and Shepard (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1987)

The Lesson of the Cupcakes: Fixing Schools by Resisting Gimmicks and Heeding Evidence, Kevin Welner

Exploring the Association Between Grade Retention and Dropout, Jimerson, et al. (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 7, pp. 51-62, 2002)

Ultimately, the research is unequivocal in identifying that grade retention does not appear to address the needs of these students at risk of academic failure. Findings from this study should not be misinterpreted as an indication that retention was an effective intervention strategy for the retained students who did not drop out of high school. There is a need for further research comparing the retained students who completed high school with matched comparison groups of similarly low achieving but socially promoted students. This study highlights the association of early socio-emotional and behavioral adjustment and high school dropout among a group of retained students. These findings have direct implications for school psychologists and other educational professionals. In particular, rather than focusing on the unsupported academic intervention of grade retention, it is time to implement prevention and intervention programs that have been empirically demonstrated to meet the needs of these students in facilitating both positive academic success and socio-emotional adjustment.

Grade Retention: A Flawed Education Strategy, Xia and Glennia (part 1)

Decades of research suggest that grade retention does not work as a panacea for poor student performance. The majority of research fails to find compelling evidence that retention improves long-term student achievement. An overwhelmingly large body of studies have consistently demonstrated negative academic effects of retention. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have almost unanimously found that early retention during kindergarten to grade three is harmful, both academically and emotionally. [2] Many studies find that retention does not necessarily lead to increased work effort among students as predicted.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Grade Retention, Xia and Glennia (part 2)

Grade Retention: The Gap Between Research and Practice, Xia and Glennia (part 3)

The majority of published studies and decades of research indicate that there is usually little to be gained, and much harm that may be done through retaining students in grade. Yet, many educators continue to use retention as a way to improve student achievement and claim that it produces positive results. The consequence is while a growing body of studies show that retention does not improve academic performance and has a number of negative side effects, more and more states and school districts have adopted retention policy in an effort to enhance the educational accountability.

Synthesis of Research on Grade Retention, Shepard and Smith (Educational Leadership, May 1990)

Grade Retention [a synthesis]

Social Promotion – In Comparison to Grade Retention, Advantages and Disadvantages, Different Perspectives, Jere Brophy

Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century, Shane R. Jimerson (School Psychology Review, 2001, Volume 30, No. 3, pp. 420-437)

A Synthesis of Grade Retention Research: Looking Backward and Moving Forward, Shane R. Jimerson (The California School Psychologist, Vol. 6, pp. 47-59, 2001)

In looking backwards at the retention research and previous reviews and meta-analyses, a consistent theme emerges—grade retention is not an empirically supported intervention. As reflected in the results of the three meta-analyses described above, the confluence of results from research during the past century fails to demonstrate achievement, socioemotional, or behavioral advantages of retaining students. Moreover, the research consistently demonstrates that students who are retained are more likely to drop out of high school.

Evaluating Kindergarten Retention Policy, Hong and Raudenbush (September 2006)

First, Do No Harm, Jay P. Heubert (Educational Leadership, December 2002/January 2003)

The Facts on Education: Should Students Be Allowed to Fail Grades?

Holding Kids Back Doesn’t Help Them, Deborah Stipek and Michael Lombardo

Grade Retention and Social Promotion, National Association of School Psychologists

For children experiencing academic, emotional, or behavioral difficulties, neither repeating the same instruction another year nor promoting the student to the next grade is an effective remedy. (p. 5)

Grade Retention: International

Early Academic Performance, Grade Repetition, and School Attainment in Senegal: A Panel Data Analysis (Senegal)

Grade retention and educational attainment (Belgium)

Grade retention and its association with school misconduct in adolescence (Flemish)

This study represents one of the few to investigate the effect of grade retention on students’ school-disruptive behavior in adolescence. It is unique in addressing multilevel issues in this line of research. First, it has shown that it is important to distinguish grade retention at different educational levels. While we find evidence that primary school retention may be associated with less misconduct in adolescence, we establish that secondary school retention may give rise to deviance in adolescence. Moreover, we address the important role of schools’ retention composition, finding that students attending schools with more retainees are more likely to be deviant, although this composition does moderate negative retention effects. Together with previous literature on the effectiveness of grade retention, we advocate the abandonment of this intervention, especially at the secondary level.

See Demanet and Van Houtte’s cites:

In many countries, the practice of grade retention is widespread (Switzerland: Bonvin, Bless, & Schuepbach, 2008; Germany:  Ehmke, Drechsel, & Carstensen, 2010; US:  Jimerson, 2001; Lorence & Dworkin, 2006; Canada:  Pagani, Tremblay, Vitaro, Boulerice, & McDuff, 2001; Belgium:  Juchtmans et al., 2011; Van Petegem & Schuermans, 2005). Proponents believe that giving students ‘‘the gift of time’’ will put them back on track for normal educational growth. Ensuing the popularity of this strategy, a rich body of research has developed to test its effectiveness. The practice has some positive effects on students’ cognitive growth (Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1994), but these remain mainly short term (Jimerson & Ferguson, 2007; Meisels & Liaw, 1993) and occur only when special help is provided to retained children. In fact, in recent decades many studies have condemned grade retention as an ineffective practice to improve student learning (see, e.g., Bonvin et al., 2008; Jimerson, 2001; McCoy & Reynolds, 1999; Pagani et al., 2001).

Relation of Academic History and Demographic Variables to Grade Retention in Lebanon

[1] See Krashen, S. (2013, May). Need Children Read ‘Proficiently’ by Grade Three? Language Magazine.

[2] Deborah A. Byrnes, and Kaoru Yamamoto, 1985, “Academic Retention of Elementary Pupils: An Inside Look,” Education, 106(2), 208-14; Peg Dawson, 1998, “A Primer on Student Grade Retention: What the Research Says,” NASP Communique, 26(8); Shane R. Jimerson et al., 1997, “A Prospective, Longitudinal Study of the Correlates and Consequences of Early Grade Retention,” Journal of School Psychology, 35(1), 3-25; Panayota Y. Mantzicopoulos, 1997, “Do Certain Groups of Children Profit from Early Retention? A Follow-Up Study of Kindergartners with Attention Problems,” Psychology in the Schools, 34(2), 115-27; Samuel J. Meisels and Fong-Ruey Liaw, 1993, “Failure in Grade: Do Retained Students Catch Up?” Journal of Educational Research, 87(2), 69-77; Judy Temple, Arthur Reynolds and Suh-Ruu Ou, 2001, “Grade Retention and School Dropout: Another Look at the Evidence,” The CEIC Review, 10(5), 5-6 & 21; Charles L. Thompson and Elizabeth K. Cunningham, 2000, “Retention and Social Promotion: Research and Implications for Policy,” Eric Clearinghouse on Urban Education Digest, 161, 1-5; Deneen M. Walters and Sherry B. Borgers, 1995, “Student Retention: Is It Effective?” School Counselor, 42(4).