In 2012, Colorado joined the list of states whose legislators don't understand the difference between correlation and causation. Colorado passed the READ Act, "born out of convincing research by a variety of sources...that shows students who cannot read by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school."
That's an interesting, possibly valuable correlation. But to argue, as many states now have, that forcing students to stay in third grade until they can pass a standardized reading test will somehow cause them not to drop out of school (or fail at school or fail at life, as other research has sugested)n is just dumb.
What do I mean about confusing correlation and causation in developing policy? Consider these examples:
Research shows that students who don't reach a certain height by third grade will be short as adults. Therefor, we should keep them in third grade until they reach tat certain height.
Research shows that if students use corrective lenses in third grade, they usually use them as adults. Therefor, no third graders will be allowed to use corrective lenses.
Research shows that students who have beaten up, ill-fitting shoes in third grade often are poor in high school. Therefore, we will buy all third graders a nice pair of shoes, insuring that none of them will be poor when they are in high school.
READ incorporated many of the usual dumb ideas. Like jamming reading, and the formal assessment of reading, down onto kindergartners. We know that academically oriented kindergartern is a bad idea. We absolutely know it. Here's just one paragraph from just one of the many articles that appear weekly, desperately trying to remind the People In Charge about this (in this case, it's Peter Gray in Psychology Today):
The research is clear. Academic training in kindergarten has no long-term benefit. In fact, it may cause long-term harm. It does not reduce the education gap between the rich and the poor, which is the usual reason offered for such training. It slightly increases academic test-scores in first grade, but by third grade the benefit is lost and, according to some of the best studies, by fourth grade those subjected to academic kindergartens are doing worse—academically as well as socially and emotionally—than those who were in play-based kindergartens (for some of the evidence, see here).
READ at least has the sense not to use third grade retention as the default strategy. It leans heavily on giving districts a bunch of money to come up with some kind of intervention strategy, selected from the state menu of strategies.
But it came with heavy support from astro-turf group Stand for Children. And it doesn't appear to have put a lot of thought into the idea of "on grade level," a construction that seems straightforward, but is not. Lots of folks have different ideas about what "reading on grade level means,' and there are a wide variety of tools available for measuring the grade level of a piece of writing, and they all mostly disagree with each other when it comes to any one piece of writing. The functional definition of "on grade level" has huge implications for these sorts of policies. If, for instance, you get "grade level by looking at the bell curve of reading test results for all third graders, and you mark the top of the curve as "on grade level," then voila!! Half of your third graders read below grade level. Or maybe you use a measure that a reading scientist cooked up in a lab, and you don't really know what "on grade level" means.
Nor is reading ability a static state, a set of skills that transfer equally well in all situations. A student who loves baseball may be a great reader of a passage about baseball, and a terrible reader of a passage about economic policy in early Asia. Measures are further warped by the biases of the test designers. But a student who is good at interpreting marks on the page as sounds isn't necessarily a good reader, just as a student who is good at making guesses about the passage based on pictures and hints without actually decoding any of the marks on the page-- well, that child isn't necessarily a good reader either.
All of which is to say that assessing literacy is really, really hard, and virtually every expert has an investment in one particular point of view, including the people whose point of view is "I would like to make a lot of money selling you reading stuff." Colorado's ac t leans toward multiple measures rather than a single test, but there are still just so many problems here.
Not the least of which is that READ seems to be utterly failing.
It's 2019, and Colorado's reading numbers haven't shown any real improvement.
This has led to lots of dumb ideas in response. Take this gobsmacking headline from Chalkbeat Colorado last March:
Seeking better results, Colorado lawmakers want to tell schools how to teach reading
This is straight from the file of crap that other professionals don't have to put up with but teachers get dumped on them all the time. We don't see "Seeking better flight results, lawmakers tell pilots how to fly planes" or even "Seeking more wins, lawmakers tell head coach how to call plays" and certrainly not "Seeking fewer illnesses, lawmakers tell doctors how to practice medicine." Oh, no, wait, sometimes we do see that-- and it looks like these dopes in Ohio mandating a medical procedure that doesn't actually exist. So maybe we aren't the only ones ever, but it's still dumb.
it wants to hire a consultant to spend a few years (and a few million dollars) figuring out why READ tanked. Colorado wants to hire WestEd, a 50-year-old descendant of the federal regional education laboratories established under LBJ. While other of these labs have fallen by the wayside, WestEd has "diversified" its funding (You can get lots of video about them here). They are to audit the money from READ.
What's baffling here is that the legislative response to READ's failure doesn't seem to include anything along the lines of, "Hey, let's go out and talk to the actual classroom teachers who are actually devoting their professional lives to teaching littles to read. Maybe they could tell us what some of the obstacles are, or why READ didn't work. Maybe--and I'm must spitballing here--we could ask them what sort of help they need to get this job done."
I suppose it's not that surprising. Colorado is a state awash in reformy disruption, and where reformy disruption goes, teachers are largely ignored and dismissed.
But still. Imagine your eight year old child is having trouble reading. Who do you call? A legislator? A consultant? Or do you get ahold of the actual teacher who is actually working with your child on a daily basis? And the beauty of this as a strategy for the state is that all those teachers already work for them, so you wouldn't have to spend $5 million to get to the bottom of READ's failure. Soneone is going to say, "Well, WestEd is probably going to do that as part of its consultimg," and on the one hand I think, boy, I sure hope so but on the other hand I'm thinking, you mean the state of Colorado needs to speak to their teachers for them, because it's so hard for them to do it themselves??
So many bad choices lined up in a row. Here's hoping that WestEd can talk $5.2 million worth of sense to the Colorado legislature.