Monday, May 19, 2014

Rigorizing Eight Year Olds

One of the most odious policies to emerge from the Reformster swamp is the mandatory retention of all third graders who don't pass the Big Test in reading. And now Mary Laura Bragg, the director of Florida's program, has popped up to help us all understand just how anti-child this policy is.

She has popped up in North Carolina (motto: Strapping schools to a rocket and shooting them back into the 19th century) where such a program is being definitely considered* (I would say "seriously," but nobody who is serious about educating children would ever consider such a policy). She is responding to an op-ed by Janna Siegel Robertson and Pamela Grundy laying out why the politics-driven Read to Achieve program is an educational mistake; their piece explains (with like, actual facts from experts in the field) why Read to Achieve is a dumb idea. But Bragg (who is also the National Director of Policy for FEE, a prolific generator of anti-public-ed nonsense) questions the rigor of their work, and wanted to make her own point. So what is her point?

Florida's program is called "Just Read, Florida!" and that name really captures the cluelessness of the whole approach. Like many Reformster programs, this one starts with the assumption that these little eight-year-old slackers just aren't being sufficiently threatened and browbeaten. They could read, dammit-- they're just holding out on us! Don't tell me about your problems or your challenges or your background or your use of English as a second language or your cognitive impairments or how your life gets in the way of your school-- Just Read, Dammit! Just do it! Because there is no better pedagogical technique than Insisting Strongly.

Bragg says the proof of her programs success is that the NAEP scores went up. This, too, captures what is so screwed up about this approach. Because remember, Moms and Dads, the school is not here to serve the students by providing them with an education. The students are here to serve the school by cranking out the scores the school needs to make its numbers.

The biggest complaint against retention is the use of test scores in making decisions. But good tests objectively measure real reading skills. A score is not simply a number on a piece of paper but a reflection of actual ability. 

Well, that's sort of true. Sometimes a score isn't simply a number on a piece of paper. Sometimes it's a number in a computer. But either way you cut it, it's simply a number. Do good tests objectively measure real reading skills? Here you're just making a definition, and if that's your definition, then no good tests exist, and they never will. (Also-- is that really the biggest complaint against retention. Because as Pamela Grundy points out below in the comments, the biggest complaint might actually be that retention does more harm than good.)

There is no such thing as an objective concept of "real reading skills." A reading test will always--ALWAYS-- measure the biased picture of reading skills promoted by the people who wrote the test. Always. We could break the internet launching into that argument, but if you want to shut me up, just provide an objective picture of Real Reading Skills that all educational experts agree on. I will not be waiting.

Children who enter fourth grade as struggling readers are four times more likely to drop out of school. The vast majority of teenagers who wind up in the juvenile justice system are illiterate. In other words, the most important indicator of whether a child will succeed in life is whether he or she is a strong reader by the end of third grade. 

Is there some sort of requirement that all Reformsters must skip Basic Statistics class. Maybe you missed this when it was going around the net, but here are some great charts showing, among other things, that the lower the divorce rate has dropped in Maine, the less margarine has been sold.

Your "most important indicator" is bogus, fake, false, unsupportable. At the very least, the correlation door can swing both ways-- a student unhappy enough with school to eventually drop out is less likely to try at his reading lessons (even if someone shouts, "Just Read, Dammit!" at him). What is most likely is that dropping out, getting in trouble with the law, and failing in school are all related to a separate factor.

But Bragg is STILL not done being ridiculous!

Retention policies are badly needed tough love. 

Oh for the love of God. Yes, because all those elementary teachers are in classroom saying, "Yes, reading's okay and all, but I would rather give Pat a cookie and sing Kun-Bay-Yah" because if there's anybody who DOESN'T understand the value of education, it's the people who decided to devote their adult professional lives to education.

Yes, these damn kids just need a kick in the pants. Bunch of slackers!

Children should hit developmental milestones when they are told to. The average height for an eight year old boy is 45 inches. I propose we hold all boys in third grade until they reach that height. If they won't reach that height, let's just use tough love and yell "Just Grow, Dammit!" Because children should grow as they are told to grow, and they should all grow exactly the same way at exactly the same time. And if they won't behave and conform and obey, they must be punished until they will.

 Bragg's closing shot is as anticlimactic as it is obnoxious: "This debate obviously will continue. It is important to ensure all relevant information be included. One would hope those in academia would not rely on others to do basic research." This despite the fact that she has not offered any relevant information or basic research.

Look, North Carolina-- this is a bad, bad, dumb idea for which there is no good argument. It assumes that children can be punished into excellence and achievement, and while that is a logical extension of the NC policy towards teachers, there isn't a lick of support to suggest that it creates smarter, healthier, happier grown-ups. And taking education advice from Florida is like taking political advice from Iraq. Just Say No, Florida!

*EDIT: Just to clarify-- yes, NC actually has one of these reprehensible laws in place. As it comes time to actually make third graders suffer the consequences of  NC legislative malfeasance, Grundy and Robertson have stepped forward to plead that NC's leaders reconsider before somebody (particularly a third grade somebody) gets hurt. Bragg stepped in to argue staying the course. So the law's in place, but nobody has really thought about what it's going to mean until now. That's where we come in at the beginning of this piece.

Read more here:


  1. Thanks for this great piece. One thing I would add. She neatly sidesteps the retention problem by falsely claiming that "The biggest complaint against retention is the use of test scores in making decisions." The biggest complaint against retention is that it does more harm than good.

  2. Do any of these education reformers have children? I am not trying to be rhetorical, I really wonder, because they sure don't seem to understand what the parent of just two children knows.

  3. Thank you for this Peter. I discussed my point of you on retention in this post about a month ago.

    Reformers simply do not dwell in a world that is centered on children or reality. I think they should be retained until they can read some actual literacy research. Perhaps we can find them a holding tank at the Broad Academy.

  4. Thanks Peter (and Russ!). If we truly cared about helping children to read, there are dozens of evidenced based reading interventions that we could use that costs less than retention. Even though retention is not a reading intervention, and we know that it can harm children and make it more likely that they drop out of school, she still recommends it. Why? So our NC NAEP scores can be temporally and artificially inflated for 4th grade like FL? Wow. She is correct. I care more about children than state reading scores. Improving reading for individual students can make a difference in their lives. Inflating reading scores on a test for a state at the risk of damaging student's futures- no thanks- that is her job. I should show her this:

  5. Both Florida and NC, which passed this proposal in the last session, are using the same Playbook- -that written by ALEC.

  6. This is how Tennessee got to be "the fastest improving state in the Nation" on the NAEP test. The year before the NAEP, a law was passed that retained 3rd graders from advancing to 4th grade if they were not proficient. It made our awful Governor and appointed Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman, look like their awful reforms were working. (Yes, Kevin Huffman is the ex-husband of She Who Must Not Be Named.)

  7. As the parent of a NC 3rd grader, thank you for your post! Our children have been through so much this year due to this law. I sent a letter to Senator Phil Berger, the so-called "champion" of Read to Achieve. I did not get a response, but I shared it here